When Skills are Paywalled

12 June 2022

The lowest paying jobs are overwhelmingly within the retail and service sectors. These jobs, and others, are generally considered "unskilled labor".

Anyone whose worked these jobs can contend that they do require skills, just not profitable or credible ones.

'Unskilled' jobs are often worked by people who are  'profitably' skilled, qualified to do a job somewhere with higher pay but are unable to prove it sufficiently.

However, in the dominant worldview, a worker is usually considered "skilled" when they have one of the following:

  1. Previous experience performing a job.
  2. A credible proof-of-skill document.

When you lack experience (because you have none) you're pretty much stuck in a catch-22 and have to rely more heavily on #2. (There's also a hidden #3: Nepotism, but that's a topic for another time.)

These "proof-of-skill" documents I'm talking about are things like a college diploma, a certification, or some other accredited professional acknowledgement.

To employers, these documents offer credible proof that a worker has sufficiently demonstrated a skill.

The college degree is the "soft barrier" for most jobs, including trade schools which offer degrees or certifications. There are also independent certification programs, not always required but very often preferred. Some trades also offer apprenticeships, but they are rarely completely free to the average, unemployed person.

Anyone who's been to, thought about going to, or have friends or family who've gone to college know that it's extremely expensive. And anyone who knows someone over 50 who went to college knows it hasn't always been that way.

Certifications aren't cheap, either. I used to want this technology certification called CompTIA A+, for basic IT knowledge. The very basic voucher you need to schedule an exam is $239 (although CompTIA graciously offers a payment plan through a sketchy third party service). If you fail the exam after buying it, you used up your chance and you gotta buy another one. Many certifications operate like this. It's like "lives" in Candy Crush, but much more soul-crippling.

In my case, I decided that I would never feel 100% confident in myself to pass the test the first time, and that I could not possibly justify spending nearly $600 on a test to prove a bunch of stuff that I already knew. For the first half of my life, both mine and my family's bank accounts never had more than $100 of free spending money any given week, and no savings. All of the money had to go toward gas, car repairs, rent, food and bills.

I couldn't bear the thought that this company dictated my future - but made it my fault if I failed their exam by making me pay again. It seemed downright cruel, when money is also used for like, buying housing and food.

In fact, it is the same paywall I'd hit over and over again during my time in college. The shock and horror I felt at finding out that you needed to spend money to simply submit an application to most schools regardless of whether you got in, that the entrance exam cost money to take and re-take, that a highly-recommended honors-society membership was contingent on a (high) yearly fee, that it cost money to park at my own college when the only alternative was to purchase housing from them, that I had a chance to take an (unpaid) internship but couldn't, because they were all in the city, and did not cover your transportation costs, which I couldn't afford.

I never understood why the others weren't outraged about this as I was. The only answer I could think of is that they didn't know, because they already had that kind of money, so it was no big deal. It's faith-shattering to experience.

In our society, the only way we can credibly prove our skills is if we spend money (a resource also used to purchase food and rent). If we are unable to spend this money (a resource we probably don't have because we're unqualified and therefore unemployed or underemployed) then we cannot prove our skills in a way that satisfies the dominant worldview.

To me, feels like we're moving even further away from skills-based hiring and toward the invention of even more paid qualifications to offer prospective 'successful candidates' for the simple sake of spending money.

If skill truly mattered in the workforce, it would be obvious to us. There would be a free evaluation equally available to anyone who applied. An evaluation which allows an applicant to demonstrate their skill in a meaningful way.

Instead, it's locked behind a set of qualifications only available to a certain class and above.

Have you had any experience trying to get work you were skilled in, but didn't have the 'qualifications' for? I'd love to hear about others' experiences.