The “skills gap” myth: What’s really driving down wages?

I have been writing quite a bit on income inequality lately with a particular focus on the narratives and values at work in our culture which justify inequality and shape the belief that economic inequality is consistent with a democratic and supposedly egalitarian society. As a society, Americans hold many beliefs that express, with varying degrees of consciousness, a deep commitment to inequality.

For example, I think it’s fair to say that many, if not most, Americans seem accepting of the fact that different kinds of work are remunerated differently. We don’t hear too many complaints about the doctor or lawyer receiving a higher salary than the custodian or postal worker.
In my own view, we should complain about this disparity. It’s not clear to me why people spending forty hours of their week performing socially necessary work deserve more or less than others. Of course, when I express this opinion, I receive lots of complaints.
One of the most frequent objections littering the comment sections at the end of my articles is that jobs being remunerated with a minimum wage are jobs that require minimum skills, making the situation just. Thus, if people want to improve their wages, they need to improve their skills or acquire new ones that merit higher pay. The idea, quite a prevalent one in our society-constituting an almost common sense—is premised on the assumption that wage levels somehow correlate with skill levels.

Busting the “skills mythology”
Yet this “skills myth,” as we might call it, is just that, a powerfully dangerous myth that is disarming in its power to cloud our perception of the real forces driving down wages in our economy. The term the “skills gap” has dominated the rhetoric accommodating the American psyche to gross economic inequality, promulgating the illusion that American workers’ economic woes are attributable to their own lack of appropriate skills for the jobs demanding the highest salaries rather than to concerted efforts on the part of capital to disempower workers, largely though not exclusively through assaults on labor unions over time, and erode wages.
While in fact many jobs have not changed, studies show that on the whole real wages have been declining in many occupations. Last September, in an economic environment characterized by substantial job creation, CNBC’s Jeff Cox reported, “For all the talk about the nearly 250,000 jobs a month the economy is creating, workers’ real wages, including the cost of living, are going backward. Average pay in real terms slumped 4 percent from 2009-2014, according to the National Employment Project.” That wages are declining in jobs for which the skills required have not altered debunks the myth that wages are declining because the American worker lacks skills. Indeed, the Economic Policy Institute earlier this year presented an analysis suggesting the opposite, concluding, “Workers with a four-year college degree saw their hourly wages fall 1.3 percent from 2013 to 2014, while those with advanced degrees saw an hourly wage decline of 2.2 percent. If demand for high-skilled workers were driving wage inequality, we would expect to see these workers’ wages increasing, or at the very least, falling less than their low-skilled counterparts.”

The union-busting reality
Thus, it is not workers’ lack of skills driving down wages, but the all-out assault on workers and unions. Last July, janitors in the school system in Barrington, Illinois went on strike because their wages were being cut from $9.77 to $8.50 per hour. Did these workers’ skills change? Not at all. In the arena of education, given technological developments, teachers actually need to possess more skills than in the past, and certainly not less. Yet the charter school movement has been responsible for driving down teachers’ salaries. Why? Because charter schools typically feature a non-unionized faculty, prompting many to understand the charter school movement as a movement largely intended to break powerful teachers’ union. Again, the skills required for the work have not changed; rather the assault on workers’ rights and on wages has intensified.
In an interview regarding the resurgence of manufacturing in South Carolina, Republican Governor Nikki Haley celebrated the absence of unions in her state, explaining to CNBC’s Phil LeBeau, “We don’t have unions in here for a reason. And that’s because of the complement between the companies and what they know they need to do is value their workforce and it’s the workforce who knows they’re part of a family and they don’t want a middleman getting in the middle of it.”
Americans support unions

I guess being part of family means workers give their paternalistic bosses a discount to the tune of ten dollars per hour, which is how much less Boeing’s skilled machinists earn in Haley’s neck of the woods compared to their unionized counterparts in Washington state. I’m not sure what worker focus group Haley convened to discern workers’ perspectives, but her sense of what the workforce wants is noticeably out-of-sync with the recent Gallup poll indicating that Americans’ approval of unions has been rising, standing now at 58%, up 5% over the past year and 10% since 2009. The percentage of Americans wanting labor unions to have more influence has also increased 5% to 37%since 2009, while the percentage of Americans wanting unions to have less influence has decreased 7% to 35%.
While perhaps we can’t be sure about the exact cause of Americans’ growing support for unions, it would be beyond silly to think that the unrelenting assault on wages and workplace rights don’t have something to do with this changing perception of the role and need for unions. It seems that workers may increasingly be desiring “a middleman getting in the middle” of that otherwise happy family Haley references, a family riven by the GOP’s intensifying agenda of class warfare.

Donald Trump declares war on wages
Of late, the Dickensian rhetoric like Haley’s, typical of Republican rhetoric designed to assuage class tensions and deny the reality of the class warfare they wage, has all but disappeared thanks to Donald Trump’s involvement in the GOP primary fray and what seems to be his case of political Turrets syndrome.
Indeed, the constant anti-worker statements from Trump, as cruel and outrageous as they might initially seem, actually provide an accurate description of the behavior of America’s economic elites in their partnership with Republicans who craft legislation to underwrite their interests. Republicans have reversed the course of Lyndon B. Johnson’s quest for the Great Society and the war on poverty, and instead have openly declared a war on the impoverished and those they intend to drive into poverty.
The rhetoric of shared prosperity that informed their celebrated trickle-down economics has disappeared, revealing the frightening reality of the GOP’s unabashed keep-the worker-down economics and of its persistent drive to re-distribute wealth from the bottom to the top. Enough is never enough.
The class warfare agenda has been blatantly announced.
Trump, of course, notoriously revealed his ideas for driving down the wages of autoworkers, whom he deems overpaid, by closing and re-locating plants: “You can go to different parts of the United States and then ultimately you’d full-circle—you’ll come back to Michigan because those guys are going to want their jobs back even if it is less. We can do rotation in the United States—it doesn’t have to be in Mexico.” The objective is to make Americans desperate and disempowered so they’ll work for even fewer crumbs from the proverbial cake corporate America eats but which the working classes bake.
And if you thought Trump was just putting his foot in his mouth, he doubled down on these comments in a subsequent appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” declaring his antipathy to the minimum wage and arguing that the U.S. could attract more jobs if there were no minimum wage.
Of course my point is that Trump’s comments are not idiosyncratic in their content, even if his articulation of this content is unusual. Scott Walker has proudly insisted that the minimum wage “serves no purpose” and stands by his roll-back of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. Moreover, Trump’s strategy for reducing wages perfectly describes what is happening in Haley’s South Carolina: corporations are moving there to avoid unions and pay workers less. It’s no secret, despite the “happy family” rhetoric that seeks to mask this reality.
If we are going to have a serious discussion of income inequality in this country, we need to see through the damaging and specious rhetoric that justifies inequality in so many people’s minds. A common -sense look at what is—and who is—really driving down wages for middle and working class people will show us that the assault on wages is linked to a de-valuing of people and their skills simply in an effort to continue the socially destructive project of re-distributing wealth to the top, increasing profits at workers’ expense, and politically crippling the labor movement.

Photo: mSeattle/Flickr CC2.0




Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.