There’s a scene in “2 Broke Girls” that’s made the rounds on the internet.
Three characters are working at a coffee shop. “I think we can handle it. I went to Harvard,” one says.
“Well, I went to Wharton,” responds another.
“And I went to juvie. And we’re all here, wearing an apron.”
The pandemic has shown over and over again how critical these “unskilled labor” jobs are. The shelf-stockers at the grocery store are arguably more important than the CEO they work for to keep society functioning. How long would it take for bags of trash to line the streets if the garbage collectors collectively quit? In Cody, I give it about two weeks.
In the United States, we’ve been trained to think that “unskilled labor” means “undeserving of a modest life.” Yet without those “unskilled laborers,” our entire way of life would collapse.
We need those unskilled laborers to fulfill our late-night taco runs, to keep the trash off the streets, to place the cans of beans and bags of rice on the store shelves. We pay them a pittance, rarely provide them benefits like health care or retirement, but expect them to come running when we just can’t find that can of mushrooms.
In high school, I manned the grill at a fast food restaurant. I could track 30 patties at a time, plus chicken breasts and toasting bread. All had different cook times. Each needed to be juicy (or crisp) when they came off the grill and hot enough to ensure a customer didn’t die because they caught a foodborne illness from my grill.
If that’s not a skill, I don’t know what is. Fry cooks can literally hold life and death on their spatulas. Yet things like time management, quick reactions, planning on the fly, hunching over a hot griddle for hours on end without making a mistake, let alone the need to make sure all the food is at the proper temperature so that it doesn’t kill someone, are not viewed as skills. At least, not skills deserving of respect, that deserve clothing or a roof or food after the apron comes off.
Certainly, there are jobs that are harder, that require more skills. But to call a fry cook or a garbage collector or a house painter “unskilled” is simply false. Even the day laborer whose job is to move beams or boards around still has to have some skill, be it using a forklift or the balance and strength required to haul heavy things by hand from one place to another.
This is the myth of unskilled labor. Simply because a job might pay less than being a rocket scientist doesn’t mean it requires no skill. Because those jobs pay less, they, and the people who work them, aren’t seen as being as valuable as the doctor or engineer to society. “Unskilled laborers” aren’t seen as deserving of leading even a modest life. They chose that lifestyle. If they want to better their lives, they should just get a better job.
But when everyone is a doctor, who will flip the burgers?