The Awful Service Jobs Replacing Skilled Labor
We already knew it anecdotally, of course, but a new MIT studyadds further weight to the notion that outsourcing and mechanization are turning previously well-paying skilled jobs into low-paying service jobs:
The widening chasm in the U.S. job market has brought many workers a long-term shift to low-skill service jobs, according to a study co-authored by an MIT economist.
The research, presented in a paper by MIT economist David Autor, along with economist David Dorn, helps add nuance to the nation’s job picture. While a widening gap between highly trained and less-trained members of the U.S. workforce has previously been noted, the current study shows in more detail how this transformation is happening in stores, restaurants, nursing homes, and other places staffed by service workers.
Specifically, workers in many types of middle-rank positions — such as skilled production-line workers and people in clerical or administrative jobs — have had to migrate into jobs as food-service workers, home health-care aides, child-care employees, and security guards, among other things.
“This polarization that we see is being driven by the movement of people out of middle-skill jobs and into services,” says Autor, a professor of economics at MIT. “The growth in service employment isn’t that large overall, but when you look at people with a noncollege education, it’s a very sharp increase, and it’s very concentrated in places that were initially specialized in the more middle-skill activities.”
It's not just that these jobs pay less, are less fulfilling, and have less room for advancement and mobility. It's also that their schedules are more haphazard, making life more difficult:
In Autor’s view, studies of this kind have clear implications for policymakers: The findings, he says, can “alert people to the changing opportunity set faced by contemporary workers. I think that is relevant to education policy and labor standards.”
For instance, he suggests, recognizing that an increasing number of workers are in the service sector might lead some policymakers to endorse regulations about hours and working standards that would help these parts of the American workforce.
“It seems like people in these jobs are treated almost gratuitously badly,” Autor says. “If you work in retail, it’s possible you won’t even know your hours until the beginning of the week. … Having uncertainty about your schedule from week to week, [when] you need to get your kids off to school, makes life that much tougher. … These jobs offer flexibility, but mostly to the employer.”
The United States, he adds, “is unusual in offering almost no standards in this type of work.” And while such standards would impose some costs on employers, Autor suggests that those trade-offs could be part of a larger debate about employment today.
Better labor protections for service workers would certainly help. Beyond that, though, it's just another sign that the global economic paradigm is irreparably broken. A paradigm shift in the social contract is needed if we are to avoid becoming a two-tiered society of the very rich and pampered, serviced by the hopeless and desperate poor.