The world of work has changed dramatically in this country during the past fifty years. If we conjure “work” from the early 1960s, most of us will flash on some sort of variation on Mad Men. Homogeneity in the workplace was de rigueur, and many retired from the very same company with which they began their work life. Unskilled labor opportunities were somewhat divided between manufacturing and the service industry. Labor was pretty well organized during this period and again it would not be unusual to retire from the same factory/department store where one began their work life.
While we still have a fair share of light manufacturing in this country, most would agree that the service industry makes up the majority of our unskilled labor industry today. The funny thing about the service industry is that the world sees you working. Most of us would have little cause to witness an administrative assistant at work, but we’ve all probably seen a home health aide or shop assistant. And from where I’m standing, it would appear that we are the only people watching.
Recently I have observed a desire by (what we consider) unskilled workers to make their job as small as possible. Some of this should be attributed to self-check out for customers, automated phone trees and the like. But some of it is clearly a lack of training and professional development programs. No doubt most of us had (or have) jobs at which the clock moves very very slowly. It makes the day all the more endless to do less! When the check-out woman at the (relatively gourmet) food store tells me to move my reusable shopping bags to exactly where she likes them, I have to wonder. Her arms are fully engaged in checking her cell phone, so we know it’s not a mobility issue. Her eyes do not need to scrutinize prices, as she only need sweep them in the general vicinity of the scanner. She is not distracted by the register as I am checking myself out with a credit card. There is no heavy lifting to speak of as gourmet tidbits rarely come in bulk. So why would she want to make her job as robotic as possible? No doubt she tires of waiting on people who might be paying a bit too much for that pound of coffee. However, acting sullen and hostile is not always the most direct path to management. Where exactly is her supervisor in this story?
The service industry can be a very rewarding career option. Working in retail needn’t be the least bit mind numbing or dead end. The same is true for any number of service sector jobs. The industry, by its very nature, often attracts those with the least amount of formal education. All classes and cultures have a slightly different orientation towards work. The great equalizer should be the workplace. It is in the best interest of the employer and the economy, to train workers and illuminate their way towards a lifelong career. It would not be realistic or sustainable to expect independent companies to have training and professional development guidelines in place. But certainly any company or agency doing business with any branch of government need to demonstrate their commitment to their employees. High schools could have a huge impact on workplace readiness, either with mandatory internships or classes.
Work has changed, industry has changed, higher education has changed and work readiness has definitely changed in the last fifty years. When manufacturing was our largest (unskilled) employer, changes were made to the (once heralded) assembly line to address the needs of the worker. Our economy is now sufficiently shifted to do the same for service workers.
*There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This – Cy Coleman & Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity (1966)