Low-skill jobs

Dec 5 JDN 2459554

I’ve seen this claim going around social media for awhile now: “Low-skill jobs are a classist myth created to justify poverty wages.”

I can understand why people would say things like this. I even appreciate that many low-skill jobs are underpaid and unfairly stigmatized. But it’s going a bit too far to claim that there is no such thing as a low-skill job.

Suppose all the world’s physicists and all the world’s truckers suddenly had to trade jobs for a month. Who would have a harder time?

If a mathematician were asked to do the work of a janitor, they’d be annoyed. If a janitor were asked to do the work of a mathematician, they’d be completely nonplussed.

I could keep going: Compare robotics engineers to dockworkers or software developers to fruit pickers.

Higher pay does not automatically equate to higher skills: welders are clearly more skilled than stock traders. Give any welder a million-dollar account and a few days of training, and they could do just as well as the average stock trader (which is to say, worse than the S&P 500). Give any stock trader welding equipment and a similar amount of training, and they’d be lucky to not burn their fingers off, much less actually usefully weld anything.

This is not to say that any random person off the street could do just as well as a janitor or dockworker as someone who has years of experience at that job. It is simply to say that they could do better—and pick up the necessary skills faster—than a random person trying to work as a physicist or software developer.

Moreover, this does justify some difference in pay. If some jobs are easier than others, in the sense that more people are qualified to do them, then the harder jobs will need to pay more in order to attract good talent—if they didn’t, they’d risk their high-skill workers going and working at the low-skill jobs instead.

This is of course assuming all else equal, which is clearly not the case. No two jobs are the same, and there are plenty of other considerations that go into choosing someone’s wage: For one, not simply what skills are required, but also the effort and unpleasantness involved in doing the work. I’m entirely prepared to believe that being a dockworker is less fun than being a physicist, and this should reduce the differential in pay between them. Indeed, it may have: Dockworkers are paid relatively well as far as low-skill jobs go—though nowhere near what physicists are paid. Then again, productivity is also a vital consideration, and there is a general tendency that high-skill jobs tend to be objectively more productive: A handful of robotics engineers can do what was once the work of hundreds of factory laborers.

There are also ways for a worker to be profitable without being particularly productive—that is, to be very good at rent-seeking. This is arguably the case for lawyers and real estate agents, and undeniably the case for derivatives traders and stockbrokers. Corporate executives aren’t stupid; they wouldn’t pay these workers astronomical salaries if they weren’t making money doing so. But it’s quite possible to make lots of money without actually producing anything of particular value for human society.

But that doesn’t mean that wages are always fair. Indeed, I dare say they typically are not. One of the most important determinants of wages is bargaining power. Unions don’t increase skill and probably don’t increase productivity—but they certainly increase wages, because they increase bargaining power.

And this is also something that’s correlated with lower levels of skill, because the more people there are who know how to do what you do, the harder it is for you to make yourself irreplaceable. A mathematician who works on the frontiers of conformal geometry or Teichmueller theory may literally be one of ten people in the world who can do what they do (quite frankly, even the number of people who know what they do is considerably constrained, though probably still at least in the millions). A dockworker, even one who is particularly good at loading cargo skillfully and safely, is still competing with millions of other people with similar skills. The easier a worker is to replace, the less bargaining power they have—in much the same way that a monopoly has higher profits than an oligopoly, which has higher profits that a competitive market.

This is why I support unions. I’m also a fan of co-ops, and an ardent supporter of progressive taxation and safety regulations. So don’t get me wrong: Plenty of low-skill workers are mistreated and underpaid, and they deserve better.

But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a lot easier to be a janitor than a physicist.

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