There’s no such thing as an unskilled worker

Coronavirus has been a wake-up call for the unappreciative – supposed low-skilled workers are indispensable.

We have some unshakeable ideas about what our job says about us, and its place in society, don’t we? And we have even more these ideas about how other people earn a living. Ah, Britain. Our job is a status symbol. It is a quick descriptor that allows other to make judgments about us. That is why gameshow contestants say their name, where they live, and their job. It is why some of us lie about what we do. It drives us to seek promotion in our career. Our jobs make us.

That is, unless it’s a job others see as unworthy, as unnecessary. You have heard all the clichés about burger-flippers, and cleaners, and other supposedly low-rent jobs that exist as last resorts that do, to a certain section of society, represent failure. They are jobs people assume you “end up doing”, not actual goals. How many talent show auditions have we seen where someone is attempting to escape a lowly position, like working as a care assistant was a fate worse than death, or that stacking supermarket shelves was something you could train a dog to do.

Coronavirus seems to be quickly turning this on its head. Well, for some people it is. Others have known all along the importance of these so-called menial jobs, the jobs it is said “nobody else wants to do”. Today, several MPs have been waxing lyrical about these supportive roles as if they have been living under an enchantment for the last few decades, under the spell of an evil witch who valued only aspiration and the accumulation of wealth and debt to make it happen. Some of the quotes are truly mind-blowing for anyone who has lived in the real world for more than few seconds: “When we emerge from this crisis that’s engulfing our country, I think there will be a general reassessment about who is important in this country,” said policing minister Kit Malthouse. Tory MP Steve Double seemed equally shellshocked by the idea that, hey, maybe CEOs aren’t the only ones who matter. “One of the things that this current crisis is teaching us is that many people that we consider to be low skilled are actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country and are in fact recognised key workers.” It’s teaching you, Steve. Many of us knew already. I wish I could believe you were preaching to the choir, but my experience shows me that you are part of a blinkered, unfeeling majority on those green benches. Witness too the deathbed confession-style interview with walking pathogen Jeremy Hunt where he appeared to have realised what social care actually does, for the very first time, and way too late to be of any use to anyone.

While it has been quite unsettling to see Tories forced into looking and sounding like humans for once, I refuse to believe that this Damascene conversion will change anything in the long run. I wish I could find this great reappraisal of the low-paid and under appreciated workforce heartwarming in some way. But it makes me bilious. I am fairly cynical toward those only now realising that firstly NHS staff and then so-called “unskilled” workers are key to the economy and to our general wellbeing, but thanks for catching up.

Unskilled, or low-skilled if you like, is such a loaded term, because it usually means a job you didn’t do further study to do, one that, in theory, anyone can do. What bollocks. It has quite a range, this “unskilled” umbrella. People working in shops and restaurants, or “flipping” burgers, those wiping the mouths of our grandmothers in care homes, filling our bellies by stacking food on the shelves, or cleaning the floors we walk on and the walls we touch. Unskilled? Really? Low-skilled? There is more to a skill than a piece of paper, or years spent throwing back 2 for 1s in a university bar and occasionally dragging your arse into lectures.

When you call a job low-skilled, you’re suggesting they don’t matter, that people doing them are dispensable, that they are inferior to other jobs that would get our fellow dinner party guests hard with envy and admiration. You are wrong. Jobs with low pay, that are “unskilled” still take training, they still require energy. They are often arduous, draining tasks with important procedures. They are roles that have to balance their difficulty with their subterranean place on the hierarchy. They are usually the jobs forgotten about when a company goes bust, where former employees are made to feel like dirt for claiming benefits. These are roles propped up by long hours, complicated and dispiriting benefits systems, and “just getting by”. And, yes, they are jobs that people take pride in, and want to do well, and go unnoticed. Knowing what the world thinks of you, reading the news and seeing how ministers like Priti Patel judge your value in society, but getting up and doing the job anyway is a skill in itself.

Ignore, if you like, the art of finding the exact way an elderly person likes to sit in their chair so they’ll be comfortable all night, or drying their tears, or washing them as kindly and tenderly as you can, knowing there are ten more people to get clean before breakfast. Disregard, if you please, the skill of serving, with an unflinching face, hot, fresh food to a series of drunks who think, because they have the option of tipping you, that they own you and can treat you how they like. Forget, perhaps, that driving a bus filled 80 people who may or may not have a virus that will kill you, without PPE, is not something just anyone could do. Brush aside the talent for memorising where everything is and stock levels in a store so when a customer pounces on you like a driving test examiner, you can help them, confident that this time they won’t get angry at you. Shrug, if you must, at the expertise of the armies of cleaners who know the exact technique to get somewhere hygienic and safe as fast as possible.

If the scales have finally fallen from your eyes and you now fully appreciate what these people do, then great – but it all feels like too little, too late. Status has put you out in front, but ideologically you are way behind. If you have the power to do so, enforce change and do it quickly. The world will never run out of CEOs and billionaires.

But if the penny is having difficulty dropping – perhaps a servant usually helps it along for you – try imagining how you would get on if you were suddenly wrenched from the bubble that allowed you to call someone “unskilled”, and asked to do these jobs. The way things are going, you might yet.

You missed a bit.

A couple of paragraphs from this post originally featured in this post from the weekend.

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  1. This should be up on a billboard. Yes, yes and a thousand times yes. Thank you for writing this so beautifully.

  2. Great post. I would like to challenge the Guyliner to write a piece on how rampant capitalism cannot cope in times of real crisies. So the government is seriously considering nationalising in part airlines and railways. This from a Tory government that was rubbishing the Labour manisfesto only a few months ago.

  3. Hear, hear!

    Well said. Still enjoying all your posts and blind date deconstructions – some marvellous cheer in these dark and unsettling times.

    For this, much thanks dear Guyliner xx

  4. Well said, hope they open their narrow minded brains and acknowledge the dependance on unskilled workers esp the Carers.

  5. Thanks.

    Oh who cares..I could always get a job stacking shelves. Well, no you couldn’t stick it because it’s a tough important job with little status.

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