On Thanksgiving we rightly give thanks. And let’s be clear that, amid all the turmoil that consumes daily headlines, we Americans do indeed have a lot to be thankful for. We are still relatively free. We are also incredibly prosperous — a prosperity that would be impossible without uniquely talented and driven entrepreneurs and the courageous investors who back them. But this year I want to give special thanks to those workers we call “low-skilled.”
They may not have acquired the know-how or years of education possessed by the people you see on TV, or by academics, tech gurus or financial-market whizzes. But low-skilled workers are nevertheless among the unsung heroes of our lives.
Before I begin, I want to challenge an increasingly popular fallacy. It has become a talking point of the political Left to insist there are no such thing as low-skilled workers. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for example, tweeted earlier this year that “The suggestion that any job is ‘low skill’ is a myth perpetuated by wealthy interests to justify inhumane working conditions, little/no healthcare, and low wages.” Many have since jumped on the bandwagon to make the same point. But it’s utter nonsense.
If simply calling workers “low-skilled” allowed employers to underpay and overwork them, then every worker in America would be labeled as such and paid a pittance, including professional sports stars and neurosurgeons.
Now to be fair, a lot of the confusion comes from the sloppiness of the term. We tend to lump together entry-level jobs with jobs that don’t require much of an education, or with jobs that require hard skills but no formal education. These are very different types of jobs, and they offer very different prospects to those doing them. The term is also complicated by the fact that some of these workers haven’t yet acquired the skills necessary to perform more specialized tasks. Plenty of 16-year-olds who mop up spilled milk in supermarkets and mow people’s lawns will learn to weld, program computers or perform brain surgery. In a few years, with more education, they may very well become high-skilled.
While it shouldn’t be controversial to say that some workers have fewer job skills than others, there aren’t any “no-skilled” workers. In fact, many of the jobs we casually describe as “low-skilled” require important skills, know-how and gumption. Does anyone truly believe that there isn’t special knowledge and practice involved in being a nanny, a prep cook, a gardener or carpenter’s helper? Most college graduates couldn’t do these jobs, either because we don’t know how (proving that the jobs really require different skills) or because such work is typically terribly hard.
Identifying the workers who currently have the least-valuable set of workplace skills isn’t part of some scheme to perpetuate a myth; it’s simply a way of speaking about, although imprecisely, a reality. That some members of Congress are oblivious to this is evidence of low-skilled thinking (or, perhaps, high-skilled politics).
While some on the Left insist that it’s wrong to assume some jobs truly are low skill, some on the Right assume that low-skilled workers are somehow undesirable and worth demeaning, especially when these workers come from poor foreign countries. But this, too, is nonsense.
Close your eyes for a second and imagine what your life would be like if, overnight, all workers employed in these fields disappeared. It would be a disaster. Indeed, whether we acknowledge it or not, all of us benefit from these workers busting their butts at work, stocking shelves, picking fruits and vegetables, cleaning homes and hospitals, delivering food, watching kids at day care or home care, and so much more.
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These are people who showed up for this country when the economy was shut down by the government, working in jobs labeled “essential.” Your local grocery store wasn’t kept open during that time by the computer class who stayed comfortably at home. Low-skilled workers were the ones who prepared your food, delivered it and kept the economy going as much as possible. And we all feel the pain right now as others have failed to return to work, leaving millions of jobs unfilled.
More important, many of these workers are part of our families. They care for our children, allow us to work and get promoted, and are an essential part of what makes our lives comfortable. So, on this Thanksgiving, we need to forget the policy and political divides and simply give thanks to these workers without whom our lives would be lesser.
Veronique de Rugy is the George Gibbs Chair in Political Economy and a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.