Moving Jobs Up the Skill Ladder

In a piece on NPR the other day on Where the Jobs Will be This Decade, Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz made a vital point about  the “polarization” of American labor markets.  That term might sound dry or technical, but Katz guides us towards some transformative thinking about the current job situation.

Katz explained that without a new approach to employment, we  will see new jobs created at the very top and very bottom of the “skill ladder,” but few in between. Most boldly, he suggested that traditionally low-skill, low-wage jobs like home healthcare work  be redefined in their essence, to include more education and skills.  We should take up this challenge to our familiar thinking about jobs in America: Why have we accepted, for so long, that so many jobs in our economy must be so low in intellectual and monetary reward?  Who in the economy does this presumption benefit, and harm?  (And why do those questions seem today to arise mostly in labor history classes, not in our now daily conversations about un- and underemployment?)

Katz didn’t go as far as he might have; he didn’t suggest that those home health workers be taught some of the skills now associated with nursing or psychological counseling; only that they perhaps be taught about “problem solving, interpersonal relations and teamwork.”  But his idea that the content of education at this level could be altered seems truly practical, and  holds the seeds of some genuinely reformist thinking about our customary, and deeply inequitable, ways of dividing up work and workers.

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