Friday, March 11, 2011


Perhaps it's time for a new definition.

Unskilled labor is what you call someone who merely has skills that most everyone else has.
Seth Godin - Unskilled Labor
This raised an interesting question for me. If, according to Mr. Godin, unskilled "now" means not having any scarce, specialized skills, what did it mean before? This, surprisingly to me, became a remarkably difficult question to answer. I headed over to the Department of Labor as the obvious place to look, but couldn't find a definition there. Whether this is because the DOL doesn't formally define the term (there are some hints that this might be the case) or because their website is simply too opaque and impenetrable to find something if you don't already know where it is, I'm not certain.

Anyway, according to Webster's Dictionary Online unskilled labor "is that which performs simple manual operations that are readily learned in a short time and that require exercise of little or no independent judgment." Investopedia says that "Menial or repetitive tasks are typical unskilled labor positions. Jobs that can be fully learned in less than 30 days often fall into the unskilled labor category." According to e-How, construction workers, sanitation workers, factory workers and house painters are all unskilled labor (although the best-paid among them).

I, for my part, suspect that our understanding of what it means to be "unskilled" has been broken for some time now. My own intuition tells me that most people judge the difference between such distinctions as unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled by their subjective opinion of one's intellect and education once they find out what someone does for a living. If they wonder why you bothered to complete high school before going to work, you're unskilled. This, of course differs from the new definition that Godin is pushing, which is basically any skill too common to command a high wage or make you unemployment-proof isn't really a skill. This "market-based" approach to understanding the value of labor works well for a certain sort of factory-based economy, and, in service of that it puts people in a constantly precarious position - the moment the labor market moves away from whatever narrow specialty one might have pursued, they're no better than someone who never bothered to take on an advanced education in the first place.

And it reinforces a perception that I don't know is healthy - that the worth of what one knows has no other measure than what someone is willing to pay for one to put it into use on their behalf. I'm not willing to denigrate, out of hand, anything that can't convince someone wealthier than myself to consistently shell out money for it, for no other reason than a lack of scarcity. I don't think we do ourselves a favor by replacing one subjective definition for a word with another that seems no more accurate.

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