Stereotype of ‘menial worker’ is obsolete

Posted on in Debates

Source: — Authors: – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun Nov 06 2011.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Just when politicians, economists and educators thought they had the province’s labour market figured out, the Ontario Literacy Coalition has released a report that undermines their theory.

The 14-page paper, Menial No More, challenges the prevailing assumption that the 2.5 million Ontarians locked in low-wage service jobs are unskilled. In today’s labour market, everyone from a coffee shop barista who troubleshoots the Wi-Fi to a hospital orderly who does his rounds with a hand-held computer needs digital skills.

These workers may not have a high-school diploma or formal training. But they are expected to work with sophisticated technology — and fix it when it breaks down. “Jobs that for generations were described as menial, are menial no more,” the report says.

This turns the hourglass theory — which has held sway for the past decade — on its ear. It was rooted in the assumption that Ontario’s once well-rounded economy had assumed an unhealthy new shape: top heavy with highly skilled knowledge workers and bottom heavy with unskilled service workers. The middle, where the manufacturing and middle management jobs used to be, had disappeared. No one knew how to get it back in balance.

The Literacy Coalition, whose members work directly with adult learners, says that theory has been overtaken by events. “Far from moving to an hourglass made up primarily of very skilled and unskilled labour, we are instead quickly moving to a more uniform labour market that requires essential literacy and digital skills for all Ontarians participating in the workforce,” the report says.

“It may well be that the jobs in the middle are not in fact disappearing, but rather that jobs previously considered low-skilled are becoming middle-skilled positions.”

Literacy practitioners did not come to this conclusion by analyzing second-hand data. They relied on what they found in the field.

Two years ago, the coalition received provincial funding to send literacy practitioners to 15 workplaces with high concentrations of low-skilled workers across the country. Their assignment was to conduct on-the-job training in writing and language skills and report back on their success.

But when the instructors arrived at their job sites, they discovered the workers weren’t low-skilled at all. They were using high-tech equipment to perform complex tasks. One practitioner, sent to train a group of kitchen workers, was flummoxed. “The reading and writing was basic and incredibly complex at the same time.”

On balance, the message of Menial No More is positive. Contrary to popular perception, the status quo — a shrinking middle class and a bulging unskilled class — is not immutable. It has already begun to change. “Over the next few years we have a chance to demarcate new road maps to success.”

But a certain amount of wariness is in order. The coalition predicts, for instance, that when workers in these jobs are recognized for the skills they actually have, their wages will rise. So far, there’s no sign of that. It also makes province-wide prescriptions on the basis of the 15 workplaces its members visited. They may be a representative cross-section, but they might not. The sample is too small to draw firm conclusions.

If the trend is as widespread as the coalition believes, it would make sense for policy-makers to think differently about how to train workers for the largest — and fastest growing — segment of the labour market. It would also make sense to Ontario to allocate more of its education dollars to training the 48 per cent of the adult population that lacks the skills to fill out an online application or compete for an entry-level job in the digital economy.

There is a degree of self-interest in the literacy coalition report. It obviously wants a larger share of the education pie.

But there is enough evidence of a shift in the job market that any smart politician would want to dig deeper, weigh new possibilities and jettison old stereotypes.

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