The topic of what constitutes a low- versus high-skill jobs crops up perennially. People passionately dispute whether jobs can be plotted along a one-dimensional spectrum called skill. Economists too often employ a shorthand that collapses the complexity of work and employment into a high/low binary that conveniently maps directly onto educational attainment.
Politicians adopt “skills” language, too, and as a result ideological arguments over power and fairness come into play. A common social media trope is something along the lines of “Tell me ___ isn’t a high-skilled job,” accompanied by a video of a conventionally “low-skill” worker doing something really cool. Inevitably the arguments lead to class.
What alternatives do we have to the skills-based rhetorical trap? Many have been suggested, but here’s my attempt.
A heuristic I’ve found useful is to think of skill as related to cracking a set of codes inscribed in the operation of the world outside of us. Different parts of the world operate in objectively more or less complex ways. Interpreting and manipulating the moving parts in some part of reality is like breaking a code. These codes require different amounts of training and practice to effectively decipher. To use a different metaphor, carrying out a job requires us to create a mental map or model of the part of reality where the job resides. These mental maps vary considerably in the number of bits necessary to store them in our brains.
So, roughly speaking, what might be considered a “high-skill” job is one that requires more time and resources to learn the codes governing it. In a very general way—and there are tons of caveats and exceptions here—the reward to greater time spent time learning is more income. There’s nothing new in what I’m saying here, but I think it helps to provide some different metaphors if we want to get a better grasp on what “skills” are.
Masonry is a difficult job that requires quite a bit of training. This is because rocks are hard and opaque. A layperson holding a stone can’t tell how it might shatter when struck with a hammer. But with years of practice and training, masons learn how different minerals work and come to intuit what angle and force are required to get the shape they want. Rocks have codes that takes years to learn. The better you know those codes, the more “skilled” you’ll be in masonry.
Some codes take decades to crack. The natural sciences are an obvious example. The training of nuclear engineers and oncologists proceeds from K-12 schooling through undergraduate degrees in math or hard science, PhDs, post-docs/residencies, etc. This is mostly because it is intensely difficult to crack the codes of how the nuclear forces operate or how cancer cells grow. That’s just how it is. If we didn’t pay these people relatively well, all that effort wouldn’t be worth it.
Other tasks may be difficult at the outset, but the codes governing their operation can be learned (mostly) on the job rather than requiring years of specific training. Classically “low-skilled” jobs like food serving and assembly-line work fall into this category. Individuals on these jobs can become highly skilled in the sense and that someone plucked off the street would marvel at the dexterity and creativity of experienced practitioners (whether employers recognize and reward these acquired talents is another story). And just because the codes can be learned more or less on the job does not guarantee that just anyone can do them. Some people simply aren’t cut out for waiting tables or assembling machine parts.
An important perspective to keep in mind here is that however complex are the codes in question, whether they pertain to molecular nuclei or restaurant customers, people can and will approach them with ingenuity. Most people feel it is important to take pride in their work. Although opportunities for flourishing are not evenly distributed, people can flourish in any occupation.
The discussion so far has ignored three complications: labor demand, inequalities in opportunity, and social codes. These are unavoidable features of society (not just of capitalism) and they screw up any attempt to create some value-free account of “skill” as I attempted above.
First, labor demand. Just because you spend decades learning to crack some code in the world does not guarantee that you will be compensated. Comparative literature PhDs face a tough job market, and innovation renders some knowledge-bases obsolete (telegraphy) and others in far less demand than in the past (stonemasonry). Moreover, in a capitalist society, the imperatives of profit shape the bulk of what kind of jobs are in demand—what kinds of codes need cracking—and this may create some undesirable effects. People who mastered mind-blowingly high-powered mathematical concepts in PhD programs go tune algos at Facebook or help high-frequency traders shave microseconds off of stock transactions.
Second, socioeconomic inequalities affect who can learn what codes. For many, the opportunity to learn some complex feature of the world is proscribed well before they have any say in the matter because training effectively begins at birth. Those born into the upper/middle classes, and especially those with college-educated parents, have a much larger set of opportunities for code-cracking available to them via social institutions: higher vocabulary at age 3, more resources devoted to education, etc. In a basic Rawlsian sense, this is intolerably unfair.
Finally, many of the codes necessary for navigating the world are social codes. I think this is where the most difficulties arise in the skills conversation. Even if you’re going to college for some hard-science pursuit like learning how atoms work, you’re going to have to abide by a complex set of social codes handed down relatively arbitrarily from past generations. More inequities arise here. Growing up white and well-off with highly educated parents is a great way to learn the social codes that govern elite training institutions and high-status work. Those outside of this narrow segment of society—the poor and working class, marginalized racial minorities, immigrants—must learn multiple sets of social codes to advance into higher-status reaches of society. Once again, this is plainly unfair.
Social codes also matter beyond educational and training institutions. For many jobs, social codes aren’t a prerequisite but the whole game. Navigating business hierarchies and ascending the management ladder do require some real organizational skills (I’m not a full-on bullshit jobs adherent), but they also require a fair amount of arbitrary and valueless social code-breaking that is hard to justify in terms of broader human welfare. A good way to get paid more in a business is to make sure that without you, stuff can’t get made. One way of doing that is to be the only one who can crack the code in question—you know how mRNA works—but it could also be because you’ve arrogated meaningless bureaucratic responsibilities to yourself. Sometimes it may be hard to delineate between the two.
One might argue that, arbitrary as they may be, social codes are necessary for the smooth functioning of organizations. Yes, we are a social species for whom functioning social codes ensure survival. But granting that, the fact that these codes are today largely those of a dominant professional class builds a lot of unfairness into the system, and that manifest unfairness is part of what makes people turn up their noses at the normativity of “skills” talk.
To wrap up, I do think that the complexity of codes pertaining to a job plays a key role in shaping compensation levels, but this doesn’t necessarily occur in any systematically just or fair manner. That is plainly not the case. For workers in the lowest-paid jobs, baseline levels of welfare and dignity are inextricably tied up in political institutions, market forces, and cultural norms.
Still, I think this notion of codes is useful in delineating aspects of the jobs hierarchy that can be at least somewhat disentangled from systems of power, politics, or social vagaries. I think this is what the notion of “skills” was always trying to get at, albeit with a term that is vague, value-laden, and easily appropriated by employers. Perhaps replacing “skills” with “mastery of variously complex codes” leaves a bit to be desired in terms of brevity, but I think it does a better job getting at an important correlate of pay in our economy.