What Is Unskilled Labour?
Written by
Categories: Not an expert

What Is Unskilled Labour?

a stylized sculpture of a human face and neck with a nose and vague indications of hair at the top; tiny traces of paint are visible at the top
This marble figure from the Early Cycladic culture (Aegean Bronze Age) has a secret! According to Elizabeth Hendrix it was painted with stripes of bright red cinnabar. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Accession Number: 69.11.5 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/255280

Unskilled labour is one of those terms which people often absorb from pundits or books without thinking. Its worth saying out loud that unskilled labour is labour which is common, or labour which employers can easily replace. It does not mean ignorant, or uneducated, or that anyone from a different society could do it.

In an agrarian society, jobs which require deep knowledge of using hand tools, tending plants and animals, spinning and weaving, and efficiently doing heavy manual labour are unskilled. In societies with universal education, jobs which require reading, writing, and arithmetic are unskilled. It takes years of practice to acquire these skills, but they don’t give better wages than jobs which require pure muscle power or basic spoken language, because too many workers already have them. (For example, someone who bags groceries at a Canadian supermarket earns about as much as someone who enters information from handwritten forms into a computer).

Pay for sessional instructors / adjunct professors is about minimum wage despite the lack of job security. This is because there are many more people with a PhD than stable jobs which require a PhD, so some are willing to take a job on bad terms to keep a connection to a university and get work experience which might lead to one of those coveted tenure-track jobs. Anyone who has done a manual labour job such as tree planting finds that it takes at least a summer to catch up with the experienced workers. But tree planting is unskilled labour, because any healthy young person can do them, so if one batch of workers asks for better terms, its easy to hire another batch.

We tend to forget how hard we worked to learn things like reading and writing. And we rarely see the societies where baby girls are given a spindle as early as they can sit up. So we often overlook what goes in to ‘unskilled’ jobs.

If you are a worker who uses the term ‘unskilled labour’, you might want to think why you use a term from the boss’ perspective. And when you read news magazines, you might also want to think about whose side they are on in disputes between workers and bosses. It is odd that newspapers traditionally have a business and investment section, not a labour section! In the 20th century, most newspaper readers were workers not rentiers (although that has probably changed).

Further Reading: Poul Anderson, “The Man who Came Early” (1956) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Came_Early

(scheduled 5 February 2023)

paypal logo
patreon logo

3 thoughts on “What Is Unskilled Labour?

  1. K says:

    Interesting thoughts. I don’t think the term unskilled labour is so much a “boss’s word” as a college educated persons word. I think more people are employee than employees, if employee is what you mean by worker. The division between skilled and unskilled labour is rather an macroeconomic concept anyway, and not really useful to a boss. A restaurant manager doesn’t think that all job applicants for a server position are equal. On the other hand he knows that a cook is harder to replace.

    1. Sean says:

      I see a lot of people talking about employing unskilled labour although I don’t have a lot of face-to-face contact with people in that class for the past few years. I think employers are intensely aware of what workers they can replace easily (especially in hard places like the USA and UK).

      Most of the jobs people with university degrees do don’t require lengthy postsecondary training in specific skills, and lots of jobs people without a university degree do require them (eg. HVAC technicians or welders).

      Old media have a lot of talk about labour shortages which is often code for “pay and working conditions are not good enough to get people to sign up” (or in Canada “we want the government to pay for training”)

    2. Sean says:

      Turning back to military history, the reason people intone “it takes a lifetime to make an archer” is that almost no armies could afford to take recruits in and train them up for a year or two. For the most part, European and West Asian armies needed to build on what the recruits already knew, supplemented with a bit of practice on campaign or informal lessons from old soldiers to young soldiers. Having a population where young men ‘just knew’ some useful military skills was valuable, but those skills varied from place to place.

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.