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So Many Workers Are More Skilled Than Employers Think – It’s Time We Paid Attention


Here’s a paradox we try to reconcile every day: at Calbright, we give working Californians the skills they need to get out of “low-skilled” jobs and into new jobs where they can thrive in the 21st century economy.  But we also don’t really believe there’s such a thing as “low-skilled” workers. Which is why we never use the term.

The argument that there’s such a thing as “low-skilled” work was made forcefully in a recent article in The Atlantic by Annie Lowry. She notes that prep cooks, and nannies, and every single job we have started calling “essential” during the pandemic requires significant skills and development. You can’t just do them well without learning, without practicing, without honing your skills.  

It’s not that these are “low-skill” jobs, she writes, it’s that they’re “low paying,” and thus many people discount them as not taking any skills at all. 

“It positions American workers as being the problem,” she writes, “rather than American labor standards, racism and sexism, and social and educational infrastructure.”

It’s absolutely true. 

This is why Calbright’s innovative Competency Based Education model (CBE) begins not with giving students a book of things for them to learn, but by getting to know them. It starts with asking questions about their lives and work experiences. We learn about their aspirations, motivations, and needs.

In the summer of 2020, Calbright conducted a statewide study aimed at understanding the effects of the global pandemic on Calbright’s focus population: California’s adults without degrees. The research included a survey of 1,200 low-income adults without degrees between the ages of 25 and 50, and eight online focus groups across various regions. 

The research aimed to uncover the unique needs and transferable skills for potential learners across California’s economic landscapes. This allows Calbright to honor the aspirations, motivations, and needs of our focus population in all aspects of our work.

In the summer of 2020, Calbright conducted a statewide survey of over 1,200 low-income adults without degrees between the ages of 25-50, along with eight online focus groups across California’s regions. We use that research to identify transferable skills in vulnerable industries, and to map them onto opportunities in growing fields. As a result we’re able to identify in-demand skills in our students that many of them never thought to put on their resumes, and point them at industries where, with a little training, they can succeed. 

We can therefore confirm that many so-called “low-skilled’ workers in fact have significant skills that many businesses are looking to hire for good jobs. Working retail gives you experience handling customer service crises and a constantly changing environment - that’s valuable. Childcare providers can be great communicators and good at thinking two steps ahead. The list goes on, and our Career Readiness program works with students to inventory these skills and discover how to make them clear to hiring managers at companies where our students want to work. Our students benefit from mastering new technical skills, but very few of our students need to “start over,” or start from scratch: instead they’re learning how to reposition themselves for better jobs. 

That they have to do this to live the lives they want is an economic and cultural reality, but the work they have done so far in their lives is often impressive, even remarkable. It deserves to be recognized and accorded dignity. They were never the problem: a system that marginalizes them is.