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Teaching Resources Library

Operations Management


A Background Note on "Unskilled" Jobs in the United States - Past, Present, and Future



Since 1917, American jobs have been classified by their skill level. “Unskilled work” was said to, “require no special training, judgment, or manual dexterity, but supply mainly muscular strength for the performance of coarse, heavy workdexterity.” It was the largest category of work and included mostly non-white and foreign-born workers who were employed in farm labor, factory labor, servant occupations, and “other labor” occupations. In 2020, the largest category remained “low-skilled work,” in farms, factories, in low-wage service and care occupations, and in on-demand gig and warehousing jobs. Although government regulation, labor activity, voluntary decisions from employers led to some improvements from the 1940s to the 1970s, low wages, dangerous conditions, perception of low-value, and overrepresentation of people-of-color have persisted for workers in these jobs. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of these jobs had a new label: “essential.” Workers risked their lives to keep the economy running—in grocery stores, meat packing plants, transportation, and elder care. If “unskilled” work is also “essential” work, how should we think about work, workers, and pay for jobs that have historically been categorized as “unskilled”?

Learning Objectives

  • Develop a historical perspective for why some jobs are called “low-skill,” how much they pay, who performs them, and their working conditions.
  • Discuss the relationship between the skill level of a job and who is doing the job.Discuss how assumptions about work affects workers, pay, and job design. 
  • Grapple with how jobs that are essential to the functioning of the economy can pay so little and have such poor working conditions. Given what has worked before, discuss what can be done to improve both pay and working conditions for these (and all “low-skill) jobs.
  • Discuss relationship between racial injustice and economic injustice.

For courses on public policy this note could also be used to discuss how categorizing jobs by skill level can influence labor policy, immigration policy, and future of work discussions.

Appropriate for the Following Course(s)

operations management, leadership/ethics, organizational behavior, people management, labor economics/law/policy

A Background Note on "Unskilled" Jobs in the United States - Past, Present, and Future