The Employment Trap: Part II – The Skills Deficit

Posted on 8 September, 2012


Part 2 of a 2-Part Special Denunciation of Workplace Indignity

Part 2 – The Skills Deficit

There is an unfortunate and frankly evil lack of willingness today to train employees to do jobs.  This short-sightedness has consequences not only for the employer, but for job seekers.  These effects are poisonous and systemic, and it only succeeds in saddling employers with employees with low morale, who themselves are trapped in this unhappy situation by the responsibilities and skills required and practiced in entry level work.

Washing Dishes

There is no way to know how to apply soap and sponge without years of hard training.

It is not a high-minded or even incredibly liberal sentiment that people not only want to feel valued for their labor, and not only to feel the work they do is necessarily valuable, but to do work that fits their temperament, personality, and ambitions.  Much of the necessary work of life is not, in itself, dignified or advancing many or any ideals or ambitions.  We need trash to be collected and our cities clean and free of dangerous vermin.  Ditches must be dug and asphalt laid to allow trade and leisure to exist in as great of quantities as we might deem necessary.

That is a long way of saying that nobody has an ambition to work a register, fast food kitchen, call center/customer service, cold calling sales, or janitorial job.  But for many people who are long-term unemployed, just starting out, or whose previous skills are obsolete, these are exactly the jobs they are qualified for.  Low-responsibility, highly structured and managed jobs which exercise only a limited number of skills which can be easily taught to a high school graduate.  Many of those people take these jobs believing they can advance within the company, take these skills for a higher salary at another company, or simply keep their resume from having excessive gaps.

Unfortunately, these jobs are designed specifically so that they can be easily filled.  The position has narrow work requirements and narrow responsibilities.  The skills get well exercised but, because of their narrowness, they can’t be easily transferred to another occupation.  There would be nothing wrong with this if employers today were willing to train employees for skilled jobs whose past experience has been mainly in semi-skilled jobs.  Instead, employers today by and large are choosing to only hire with experience.  And sadly for the people who took entry level jobs with an ambition to move to a career more suited to them, this now includes what would have been not even ten years ago considered entry level work.

If your resume is new, there is a small window of opportunity to achieve a broader range of skills useful for what you actually want to do and not be typecast.  If you’ve missed that window of opportunity, however, your chance to move your skills to a new occupation have become incredibly slim.  Say you’ve worked at three different places doing different things to find what suits you for two years, it’s clear to whoever is doing the hiring that you don’t make a serious commitment to your employer.  If you work as just a retail clerk at one place for two years or three places for five years, that is now a career.  Even if working in retail doesn’t suit you, unless you want to start out at the bottom again (and if you have any serious ongoing financial responsibilities such as rent, mortgage, a family, a car payment, and likely a combination thereof), you’ll probably be spending the majority of the rest of your career in retail.  This is fine if you love retail work and it fulfills those needs and ambitions that we need an activity that generally occupies more than a third of our waking existence to fulfill.  If it doesn’t, it can be a miserable trap, doing unfulfilling labor you spend what little free time you have left trying to escape.

Toast with beers

“Cheers fellas! This is the only time I don’t feel like smashing my dick in a burning hot waffle iron!”

It may be possible by circumstance to escape from that trap, finding the one employer locally who is looking to train you for a job that might fulfill you.  But relying on chance or circumstance for advancement to a career you enjoy isn’t a reasonable way for people to live, and yet that is precisely where many people find themselves today.  Anecdotally, I’ve known few people who have done any of the above listed jobs for more than a year at a stretch because they enjoyed it or got any fulfillment out of it at all.  Instead, they had fallen into the trap, stuck at unfulfilling jobs because of a lack of willingness to train an otherwise dedicated (if unhappy and unfulfilled) employee in a new skill.

Because employers can require previous experience in these menial jobs and expect a large pool of applicants to have it (because they used to be unskilled or trained semi-skilled trades), and because the skills involved are so narrow, many must realize that they now have a domesticated workforce for menial tasks which are unfulfilling and are done unhappily, but for which there are hordes of unemployed people clamoring, offering pay only barely exceeding minimum wage, if that.  The people in these jobs, by their unhappy circumstance, have no other real options other than hoping they win the job lottery when something they’d rather be doing appears in one of the sometimes hundreds of places a job could be advertised.

There may be good economic reasons why businesses aren’t willing to train employees, but however good the reason is, it doesn’t change the fact that there are millions of people stuck in careers they neither enjoy nor are fulfilled by, saddled by a work history and skill set they had little choice but to continue upon once the first steps were taken.  By the attitude and self-loathing some segments of the general public seem to share about employment and labor, there doesn’t seem to be much hope that government will step in (or if it does, that it will do anything of any significance to help people, who are able enough, to transfer between careers), and it doesn’t seem that job satisfaction for previous-experience-required “entry level” positions factors into any decisions that most businesses make, so it seems that there is little left to do but weep bitter tears of regret at the life of food-service and retail work that is laid out before you.

Arbeit Macht Frei