Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Vivamus convallis sem tellus, vitae egestas felis vestibule ut.

Error message details.

Reuse Permissions

Request permission to republish or redistribute SHRM content and materials.

Is it Time to Retire the Term 'Unskilled Labor' in the Name of Inclusion?

An important way to create civility in the workplace is by building a culture of respect and recognition for all workers, regardless of their job titles.

grocery worker tapping on his iPad

Strawberry picking requires an artistry and complexity that extends far beyond what initially meets the eye. It involves a delicate understanding of the fruit’s growth patterns and ripeness. Each strawberry must be carefully evaluated before harvest to ensure that only perfectly ripe ones are picked. Even a slight mistake, such as picking at the wrong angle or removing too many leaves, can result in mass amounts of unnecessary waste.

In an era when this and many other complex jobs that require precision and experience are labeled “unskilled labor,” it is time to shed our assumptions and uncover the untold stories of essential workers. The term “unskilled” typically suggests jobs that require minimal training and expertise, often involving physically demanding tasks. However, beneath this surface perception, we can discover a world of hidden artistry and unwavering commitment.

One important way to create civility and inclusiveness in the workplace is by building a culture of respect and recognition for all workers, regardless of their job titles. For example, look at the craftsmanship of strawberry harvesters, the resilience of grocery store workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the often-overlooked expertise of custodial workers.

Defining ‘Unskilled Labor’ and Its Historical Context

To understand the origins of the term “unskilled labor,” we need to look back at the Industrial Revolution, when mass production began to dominate economies. The separation of tasks into distinct roles led to the categorization of jobs as either skilled or unskilled. The term was often based on the amount of training required. This binary classification, however, fails to capture the nuances of the skills and expertise needed to excel in various roles.

The Complexity of Strawberry Picking. Like many skilled workers, strawberry harvesters have a masterful understanding of their trade. In addition to carefully evaluating each berry to ensure only ripe ones are picked, pickers must navigate through dense foliage, carefully selecting ripe strawberries while leaving the others untouched to maintain the leaves’ freshness. This allows virtually zero margin for error.

Manual harvesting is extremely demanding, requiring exceptional mental and physical stamina and athleticism. Workers must maintain a steady pace to meet production quotas while ensuring each berry is picked with care. They must also maintain heavy focus while navigating the fields and preserving the crops. This skill is honed over many years, reflecting the necessary dedication and professionalism.

The significance of this job cannot be understated: Strawberries are California’s third highest-grossing crop, generating $3 billion in revenue in 2021 and creating about 70,000 jobs.

The Forgotten Struggles of Grocery Store Workers. I was in the checkout line at my local grocery store in the summer of 2020. With my mask on, I listened to a verbally irate customer in front of me. When the ill-tempered customer walked away, the cashier, who had been handling the situation with remarkable patience, looked at me, let out a heavy sigh and said, “Well, it didn’t take long to go from hero to zero.”   

In the early months of the pandemic, grocery store workers were hailed as front-line champions, ensuring communities had access to essential goods. Their dedication and resilience were applauded nationwide. However, as the pandemic progressed, America seemed to lose its patience. Grocery workers encountered furious customers frustrated by shortages and changes in store policies. Despite the change in public perception, the job of grocery store worker remains as challenging as ever, due to fatigue, safety concerns and the emotional toll of difficult interactions with customers.  

It’s worth noting that people seem to feel far more emboldened to express frustration and anger toward “unskilled” or low-wage workers. We seldom witness the same uncivil behavior toward professionals in other fields, such as our optometrist or accountant. This phenomenon offers an opportunity for reflection on whether we value and respect all forms of labor in our society.

The Skill of Custodial Work. The often-overlooked role of custodial worker may be the biggest example of a profession misunderstood as unskilled. Cleaners and custodians play an essential role in maintaining hygienic and safe environments, but what’s often underestimated are the comprehensive expertise and intense physical demands required for the job.

These professionals need to possess an intricate knowledge of toxic cleaning agents, equipment operation, hazardous materials, and specialized cleaning techniques for various surfaces. They also need to understand modern cleaning technologies, advanced machinery, eco-friendly cleaning products and data-driven cleaning strategies. This recent transformation has propelled custodial work into the realm of science and innovation, underscoring the level of skill and adaptation demanded.

These professionals also carry huge safety responsibilities, including ones related to hazardous materials and chemicals, necessitating a deep understanding of safety precautions and equipment.

Recognizing the Artistry Within Essential Tasks

In recent decades, the U.S. job market has undergone a significant transformation, often described as a “hollowing out.” This shift involves a notable growth in both high-skilled, high-wage occupations and low-skilled, low-wage jobs, challenging traditional notions of “unskilled labor.”

This trend isn’t new. Similar shifts occurred during previous periods of industrialization. For instance, in the 19th century, factory owners replaced artisans with unskilled laborers and machines, akin to today’s technological advancements that are affecting essential work sectors.

These historical examples force us to reconsider the label of “unskilled” labor. Rather than hollowing out, some sectors have experienced an upgrade in skill levels. This includes an expansion of high-skill positions, stability in middle-tier jobs and a reduction in low-skill roles.

In our journey through the narratives of strawberry pickers, grocery store workers and custodians, we realize that the term “unskilled labor” is a misnomer that fails to capture the depth of skill, dedication and expertise present in these roles. As consumers, we hold the power to redefine the narrative surrounding these workers.

Supporting essential workers means acknowledging the complexity of their jobs and appreciating their dedication that makes our lives better. As we savor strawberries, walk through spotless halls and shop in well-stocked stores, let’s remember the unsung heroes who dedicate themselves to these essential tasks. It is their skill and sacrifices that challenge us to perceive the artistry in every profession.


Regina Dyerly is a veteran HR executive with over 30 years of experience. She currently serves as partner and COO at Vida HR, an HR outsourcing firm that serves small and medium-sized businesses.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.