Sunday, August 02, 2009

More about De-Skilled Jobs

Despite all of the talk about the knowledge economy and the jobs of the future, one of the oft-overlooked facts about that economy is that a large number of the jobs that it will open are unskilled and de-skilled jobs, as I noted in a recent blog post.

Unskilled jobs are ones like counter staff at a fast food place, which require little, if any, incoming skill.

De-skilled jobs are ones that, in a previous time, might have required specialized training but, thanks to job redesign and technology, can be performed by someone with little or no training. Meat packers are one example. So are typesetters.

For those in unskilled jobs, opportunity exists in moving into related skilled jobs, such as moving from a nurse’s aide to a licensed practical nurse; or from a baker at a Tim Horton’s to an assistant manager. Where the Jobs Are, an editorial published July 24, 2009 in the New York Times explores the challenges of unskilled workers.

For those in de-skilled jobs, one of the issues is that technology often de-skills once skilled jobs, and then de-skills them some more. Consider typesetters, whose job was deskilled with the rise of desktop publishing. Anyone could set type and, at first—when a shortage of desktop publishing experts existed—these jobs commanded a premium. Some could even wordsmith text, and called themselves technical writers. .

But the primary skill of so many of these desktop publishers was manipulating the software, a skill that, with each successive release of the software they knew, became less exclusive as the software manufacturers made the desktop publishing software so easy to use, specialists were hardly needed except for the most challenging of tasks.

This has the devastating effect of lowering wages for once skilled workers and reducing opportunity for many. The article, In this Recession, Older White Males See Jobs Fade, in USA Today, July 30, 2009, explores some of these challenges, as it covers the problems facing older, skilled, workers who have been laid off. (The only positive in these negative stories is equality is coming to unemployment.)

I’m not sure that too many specialists in HR and workforce dynamics are paying a lot of attention to it—at least, not many of us specializing in Human Resource Development and Technical Communication.

To see:
• The New York Times editorial, visit
• The USA Today feature, visit

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