What constitutes “skilled” labor?

Mateo Cavasotto

Mateo Cavasotto · Mar 15

It’s no secret that the words we use are significant. Both in our life and our work, words have the power to build someone up or cut them down. Over the years, we’ve seen the language of human resources and talent acquisition change and evolve to get with the times. At one point, HR was personnel, while talent acquisition was known mainly as recruitment. Today, we have different words for those seeking employment, which despite having unique meanings, often get interchanged: job seeker, applicant, candidate, talent. Words can move HR and TA forward and sometimes – hold it back.

There is ample evidence to show that the way job descriptions and postings are written directly corresponds with the folks who apply. This isn’t about advertising specifically for men or women, a matter that was actually forbidden by the U.S. Supreme Court in Pittsburgh Press Co. vs. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Rights back in 1973. No, this is about the cues communicated through word choice and, in turn, the materials used throughout the hiring process.

Defining skills

Take skills. Jobs tend to get presented in one of two camps: skilled versus unskilled. Depending on the source in question, the difference between skilled and unskilled ranges from vague at best to downright offensive at worst.

Investopedia defines skilled labor as “a segment of the workforce that has specialized know-how, training, and experience to carry out more complex physical, or mental tasks than routine job functions. Skilled labor is more generally characterized by higher education, expertise levels attained through training and experience, and will likewise correspond with higher wages.” Note the inclusion of the following words: training, experience, education, expertise, wages – and more.

On the flip side, this same publication explains that “Unskilled labor is used to refer to a segment of the workforce associated with a limited skill set or minimal economic value for the work performed. Unskilled labor is generally characterized by a lower educational attainment…and typically results in smaller wages. Work that requires no specific education level or specialized experience is often available to the unskilled labor force.” Here we see words like limited, minimal, value, and lower.

The trouble is that these explanations echo what we said at the beginning of the article: the skilled version builds up that workforce segment, while the unskilled one cuts it down. Indeed offers better clarification, “The main difference between these two types of work is the fact that skilled labor requires specialized training whereas unskilled labor does not.” Even so, anyone who has ever held any job, from CEO to cashier, will tell you that all jobs involve specialized skills – hard and soft. In some cases, you get your training on the job. In others, you bring it with you. That’s the underlying distinction. So why are we keeping these terms in the recruiting lexicon?

Flipping the script

Ultimately, it’s up to HR and TA professionals to reframe this narrative, and that starts by opening up our understanding of skills, from initial development to practical application. We have to have honest conversations with hiring managers about what’s required and what can be learned through training. We have to look at what it takes to cultivate the skills needed to do a job and figure out how to reflect that through our words – and subsequent actions.

See, reframing the skills narrative goes beyond doing the right thing by today’s job seekers. It also works to mitigate biases in processes and support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives. That’s because meaningful progress in DEIB demands structural change, and dismantling antiquated and outdated concepts, such as skilled vs. unskilled, represents a small but impactful step forward. As defined above, the factors that contribute to skilled, like higher education and advanced training, often link back to the systems that perpetuate bias in our cultures and workplaces.

Mia Character, 22, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, recently turned down an offer from a company she interned with, feeling that “diversity and inclusion efforts were meted out inequitably — the white-collar employees benefited, but the warehouse workers did not.” Likewise, Character explained that when it comes to interviewing for jobs, “As a Black woman in the workplace, I want to make sure I’m entering spaces I’m comfortable in.”

Actively removing skilled and unskilled from HR and TA parlance reinforces a commitment to diverse and inclusive hiring practices in the same way that crafting gender-neutral job descriptions or expanding pronoun options beyond he and she does. It shifts the focus away from a perfunctory checklist approach to one that looks at the individual job seeker, which becomes increasingly important to younger workers, like Character. Specialized skills from degrees and certifications don’t necessarily reflect transferrable experience, and HR and TA need to recognize and appreciate the value in both – and more than that, in all.

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