Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted key workers who are often overlooked, there is a need to raise awareness of back-end labor entering the digital economy. Most of today’s tech giants wouldn’t exist without the contributions of “low-skilled” workers.
Prior to the Turin COVID-19 pandemic, the role of unskilled workers in the economy was assumed to be declining. Only highly qualified professionals can thrive in a digitally disrupted labor market where flashy STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professionals enjoy the pride of the place. People whose jobs are threatened by new technologies have been accused of instability, redundancy, downward liquidity, and a decline in living standards.
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The pandemic partially uncovered this story by revealing which workers were really essential. It turns out that there is still no good technical alternative to street cleaners, shopkeepers, utility workers, food deliverers, truck drivers, or bus drivers who have been driving the economy throughout the darkest days of the crisis. did. Often, these workers perform tasks that require a kind of context adaptability and physical ability that cannot be easily coded into software and replicated by robots.
The fact that these least skilled workers are strong in new technologies is not surprising. The previous Industrial Revolution followed a similar pattern. At the very least, human workers are usually still needed to monitor, maintain, or supplement machines. And in many cases, they play an important role in new disruptive business models of a particular era. The challenge has always been to bridge the gap between the social value these workers create and the wages they receive.
Low-skilled jobs are usually considered jobs that new technologies will adopt over time. However, most of these jobs are themselves by-products of technological progress. Machinists, electricians, plumbers, and telecommunications installers all owe their profession to past technological advances. And now it is these workers who guarantee the proper functioning of the world’s machinery, power grids, water systems, and the Internet.
Innovation does not change the structure of traditional pyramidal work. Thereby, some highly qualified positions at the top oversee the low-skilled profession hierarchy. Rather, technology is changing the construction of the pyramid by continuously replenishing new and more sophisticated tasks while removing the most routine tasks through automation. There is still an assembly line today. However, the factory work, which is completely controlled by software and put in by intelligent robots, is quite different from the cutting-edge factory work of the 1950s.
Most of today’s big tech companies behind sophisticated digital façades rely heavily on unskilled workers. In 2018, the median salary for Amazon employees was less than $ 30,000. This reflects that most employees manage inventory and process orders in the warehouse. The same is true for electric car maker Tesla, with a median salary of around $ 56,000 in 2018. About one-third of our employees work in assembly plants. Facebook’s median salary for 2018 was $ 228,000, which doesn’t take into account the tens of thousands of low-paying contract workers that the company relies on content moderation.
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These patterns are especially evident in the gig economy, where software and algorithms provide a platform (double-sided market) for selling specific services performed by real workers. No matter how sophisticated Uber’s ride-hailing services and delivery apps are, a company wouldn’t exist without a taxi driver and courier.
However, those who work at the end of the platform economy’s value chain are often treated as second-class workers without rising to the level of staff. Unlike engineers and programmers who design and update apps, they are hired as contractors with poor workplace protection.
Similarly, artificial intelligence, which is widely seen as a major cause of future technological unemployment, would not exist, especially without the contributions of millions of digital blue-collar workers in developing countries. Most machine learning algorithms need to be trained on large datasets that have been manually cleansed and tagged by human annotators who classify the content. For algorithms that determine that a car image is actually a car, someone usually needs to tag the image accordingly.
Given the reality of the digital economy, there is no excuse to treat poor quality work as a synonym for poor quality work. Today, low-skilled workers may not have a high degree, but in reality many are skilled technicians who have acquired a particular domain of knowledge and skills. Acknowledging this is important for reestablishing these workers to negotiate power and building new social contracts.
To that end, trade unions have the opportunity to regain influence and seek a fairer treatment of the most unqualified people, including gig workers who tend to fall off radar screens. But large companies (not just the technology sector) also need to rethink how they value and reward the contributions of low-skilled workers. There is pressure from above and below to fill the gap between the top and bottom of the pyramid (in terms of both salary and allowance).
Finally, as even the most basic tasks evolve over time, governments must do more to support the educational needs of skilled engineers. To keep pace with innovation, you need to continually improve your skills to stay competitive in the labor market. In terms of overall resources, the investment of human capital in this segment should be similar to the investment of skilled professionals, but the two educational paths are of course of different structure.
Workers with few formal qualifications will continue to be a central and integral part of the digital economy. It’s political and business decisions, not new technologies, that can push them to the limit.
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