Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On "Unskilled" Labor

I spent virtually my whole working life in the food industry. 

My husband worked for Kmart for ten years, from 1974 to 1984, and held various middle management retail or food service positions for a decade after that.   

One of my sisters capped a fifteen-year retail “career” with a five-year stint at Sears.

I provide these facts as evidence of my intimate personal understanding of the retail and food service industries.  I know about hard work, crappy pay and no benefits.  I know about “salaried” retail positions (the ones where the annual salary looks pretty attractive, until you break it down by the number of hours you’re expected to work, and you realize you’re making less than $3 per hour…)  I know about being trapped working just under the number of hours per week required to qualify for benefits.  I know about being afraid to take time off because there’s a good chance your job won’t be there when you get back.  I know about the “full-time with benefits” carrot that is constantly held just beyond the reach of 90% of the work force in retail and fast food. 

Even back in the eighties, it took two full-time jobs—one in retail, one in food—to support just our family of two.  I suppose we were fortunate that I turned out to be infertile…because there was never any viable economic possibility of my taking time off to bear/raise children.  If the husband had not made the fortuitous transition out of retail management to something a little more white collar twenty years ago, I have no doubt we would both still be toiling in the trenches.  Though, realistically, I “aged out” of my chosen career about ten years ago.  There are only so many years you can expect the body and the will to withstand the sort of abuse handed out in the food service industry.     

Which is why I seethe to the point of near self-immolation when I read comments on articles about today’s retail and food-service employees, comments that loftily state that these folks have no right to complain, because they are the scum at the bottom of the employment food chain.  Retail and food service employees are lucky to have these jobs.  After all, they “have no skills.”

No skills?  Try your hand at manning the sales floor of a 100,000 square foot establishment that is purposely chronically under-staffed.  Try dealing daily with rude, abusive and even dangerous customers without putting yourself in a position that will give the company an excuse to fire you.  Try organizing your life around an income and working hours that can fluctuate wildly from week to week. 

Did you know that WalMart requires that applicants submit to psychological profile testing?  And that if your scores don’t reflect the requirements for employment, you won’t even get an interview?  Evidently you have to possess a certain set of (submissive?  masochistic?) character traits to be considered proper WalMart material.  So guess what?  WalMart really does NOT “hire anybody.”   And, unfortunately, in a lot of places, WalMart is the only gig around.

And then there’s food service.  I am currently in a position where it behooves me to keep my finger on the pulse of the type/quality of positions open locally in this industry.  And all I can do is read these ads and think, “You’ve got to be kidding!” once I get a sense of what a job entails and what the employer expects to pay.  Here’s one of my most recent favorites from Craigslist:

We seek pastry cooks for quality high-volume production for both catering and cafe service.

Qualified applicants will have some experience in production of plated and petite passable desserts (petit fours) for catering events. Familiarity with baking is also a must with an emphasis on quick breads, muffins, cookies and scones as well as classic french patisserie.
The ability to temper and control chocolate, to create custards, sauces, fillings and frostings and a basic understanding of gluten-free, dairy-free recipes are also all needed.

Candidates must be able to be punctual with a flexible schedule, have the ability to multitask, take initiative, and perform under pressure.

A clean work station, a sense of teamwork and the ability to laugh and have fun are also required and appreciated.  

Wow!  That’s an amazing conglomeration of highly specialized skills they’re asking for here!  And what would you expect the pay to be for someone possessing this skill set?

Compensation: $10-12 hr. DOE

Ten bucks an hour.  Less than $1 an hour above Oregon’s minimum wage (effective 1/1/14.)  And notice they don’t mention how many hours you can expect (any they happen to want to throw your way, depending on the business level), or what kind of benefits are available (none.) 

So I would invite any of the self-righteous jerks who scoff that retail and food are “unskilled” positions, the “I-Got-Mine” idiots who dare to pass judgment on those they believe to be a few rungs below them on the societal ladder, to take on one of these “non-skilled” positions for a week. 

Can you say, “Crash and burn?”

I thought you could. 


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