A skilled worker is any worker who has some special skill, knowledge, or (usually acquired) ability in their work. A skilled worker may have attended a college, university or technical school. Or, a skilled worker may have learned their skills on the job. Examples of skilled labor jobs are software development and accounting.
In the early 1880s, the craft unions of skilled workers walked hand in hand with the Knights of Labor but the harmony did not last long and by 1885, the Knights' leadership became hostile to trade unions. The Knights argued that the specialization of industrialization had undermined the bargaining power of skilled labor. This was partly true in the 'eighties but it had not yet made obsolete the existence of craft unionism.
The period between 1901 and 1925 signals the rise and fall of the Socialist Party of America which depended on skilled workers. In 1906, with the publication of The Jungle, the most popular voice of socialism in the early 20th century, Upton Sinclair gave them ignorant "...Negroes and the lowest foreigners —Greeks, Roumanians, Sicilians and Slovaks" hell.
There was a divergence in status within the working class between skilled and unskilled labor due to the fall in prices of some products and the skilled workers' rising standard of living after the depression of 1929. Skilled workers were the heart of the labor movement before World War I but during the 1920s, they lost much of their enthusiasm and the movement suffered thereby.
In the 20th century, in Nazi Germany, the lower class was subdivided into:
- agricultural workers,
- unskilled and semi-skilled workers,
- skilled craft workers,
- other skilled workers and
- domestic workers.
After the end of World War II, West Germany surpassed France in the employment of skilled labor needed at a time when industrialization was sweeping Europe at a fast pace. West Germany's preponderance in the field of education, the training of skilled workers in technical schools, was the main factor to outweigh the balance between the two countries. In the period between 1950 and 1970, the number of technicians and engineers in West Germany rose from 160,000 to approximately 570,000 by promoting skilled workers through the ranks so that those who were performing skilled labor in 1950 had already become technicians and engineers by 1970.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the average wage of a highly skilled machinist in the United States of America is $3,000 to $4,000 per month. In China, the average wage for a factory worker is $150 a month.
While most (if not all) jobs require some level of skill, "skilled workers" bring some degree of expertise to the performance of a given job. For example, a factory worker who inspects new televisions for whether they turn on or off can fulfil this job with little or no knowledge of the inner workings of televisions. However, someone who repairs televisions would be considered a skilled worker, since such a person would possess the knowledge to be able to identify and correct problems with a television.
In addition to the general use of the term, various agencies or governments, both federal and local, may require skilled workers to meet additional specifications. Such definitions can affect matters such as immigration, licensure and eligibility for travel or residency. For example, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, skilled worker positions are not seasonal or temporary and require at least two years of experience or training.
Skilled work varies in type (i.e., service versus labor), education requirements (i.e., apprenticeship versus graduate college) and availability (freelance versus on-call). Such differences are often reflected in titling, opportunity, responsibility and (most significantly) salary.
Both skilled and non-skilled workers are vital and indispensable for the smooth-running of a free-market and/or capitalist society. According to Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, "...Enhancing elementary and secondary school sensitivity to market forces should help restore the balance between the demand for and the supply of skilled workers in the United States."
Generally, however, individual skilled workers are more valued to a given company than individual non-skilled workers, as skilled workers tend to be more difficult to replace. As a result, skilled workers tend to demand more in the way of financial compensation because of their efforts. According to Greenspan, corporate managers are willing to bid up pay packages to acquire skilled workers as they identify the lack of skilled labor as one of today's greatest problems.
Education can be received in a variety of manners, and is acknowledged through various means. Below is a sampling of educational conventions. (According to Greenspan, math skill more than anything else is required to achieve skilled-job status and is the one skill too many high school grads lack ).
- On-the-job training - (Examples: cashier, fashion model, farmhand, office clerk)
- Apprenticeship - (Examples: carpenter, electrician, mason, mechanic, plumber, welder)
- Vocational certification - (Examples: chef, cosmetologist, dental assistant, paralegal)
- Associate Degree - (Examples: commercial artist, draftsman, licensed practical nurse)
- Undergraduate Degree - (Examples: accountant, teacher, registered nurse, software developer)
- Professional Degree - (Examples: architect, dentist, engineer, lawyer, medical doctor)
- Graduate Degree - (Examples: astronaut, mathematician, nurse practitioner, scientist, university professor)
In American industry, there has been a change in the concentration of skilled workers from the areas of past economic might e. g. steel, automobile, textile and chemicals to the more recent (21st century) industry developments e. g. computers, telecommunications and information technology which is commonly stated to represent a plus rather than a minus for the American standard of living.
All countries are in a process of change and transition which makes possible the migration of skilled workers from places of lower to higher opportunities in training and better working conditions. Although materialistic rewards play a role in skilled workers migration, it is the lack of security, opportunity and suitable rewards in the homeland that fundamentally makes this massive movement of people possible, going from places of lesser development to affluent societies.
Some developing countries see the migration of domestically trained professionals abroad not as a drain but as a gain, a "brain bank" from which to draw at a price; for these professionals, on their return with their accumulated skills, would contribute to the growth of the homeland; cultural factors favor the return of these professionals for a short or a long while.
Under Apartheid, the development of skilled workers was concentrated on the white inhabitants but after the socio-political upheaval of the 1990s, these same skilled workers are emigrating, a highly sensitive subject in contemporary South African Society. The media in South Africa has increasingly covered the "brain drain" in the 1990s. Starting in 1994, when a democratically elected government took control of the reins of power, official South African statistics show a greater emigration of skilled workers. The validity of this data has been questioned.
The European Union brought policy into force that paved the way for skilled workers from outside the Union to work and live in the EU under the Blue Card (European Union) Scheme. The key reasons for introducing this policy are an ageing population in general and an increasing shortage of skilled workers in many member states.
Highly skilled workers migration intensity
The demand for Information Technology (IT) skilled workers is on the rise. This has led to a lessening of the immigration restrictions prevalent in various countries. Migration of skilled workers from Asia to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia is common, specially among students and the temporary migration of IT skilled workers. Data shows, however, that the migration of skilled workers from Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and France to the United States is only temporary and is more like a brain exchange than a "brain drain".
World Bank Policy on Fair Exchange
Brain Drain literature focuses mainly on the high cost of skilled migration for the homeland or sending country. This loss can be partly offset if the migration is only temporary. Developing countries invest heavily in education. However, temporary migration can generate a substantial remittance of capital flow to the homeland. This flow of capital plus the additional knowledge gained would do more than compensate the homeland for the investment made originally in educating the skilled worker. The key to temporary migration is a change in the trade and immigration policies of the receiving country and a stepping-up of the demands of the sending country for the return migration of skilled workers.
- The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, an essay written by Max Weber
- Antoine Joseph/Berry/Ingram Skilled Worker's Solidarity, pp. 73-4, Taylor & Francis, 2000 ISBN 978-0-8153-3336-4
- Philip S. Foner History of the Labor Movement in the United States, pp. 78-9, International Publishers Co., 1976 ISBN 978-0-7178-0388-0
- Dirk Hoerder American Labor and Immigration History, 1877-1920s, p. 153, University of Illinois Press, 1983 ISBN 978-0-252-00963-1
- Robert H. Wiebe Self-Rule, pp. 132-3, University of Chicago Press, 1995 ISBN 978-0-226-89562-8
- Y. S. Brenner A Short History of Economic Progress, p. 213, Routledge, 1969 ISBN 978-0-7146-1277-5
- Detlef Mülhberger Hitler's Followers, p. 19, Routledge, 1991 ISBN 978-0-415-00802-0
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- Thomas L. Friedman The World Is Flat, p. 147, Macmillan, 2007 ISBN 978-0-374-29278-2
- Alan Greenspan The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, p. 405, The Penguin Press, 2007 ISBN 978-1-59420-131-8
- ibid. p. 398
- The Age of Turbulance, ibid. p. 404
- The Age of Turbulance, ibid. p. 395
- G. Beijer Brain Drain, p. 1, Brill Archive, 1972 ISBN 978-90-247-1453-7
- Dean Baker/Geral A. Epstein/Robert Pollin Globalization and Progressive Economic Policy, p. 362, Cambridge University Press, 1998 ISBN 978-0-521-64376-4
- International Mobility of the Highly Skilled, p. 214, OECD Publishing, 2002 ISBN 978-92-64-19689-6
- International Mobility of the Highly Skilled
- Adam Jolly OECD Economies and the World Today, p. 213, Kogan Page Publishers, 2003 ISBN 978-0-7494-3781-7
- Richard S. Newfarmer Global Economic Prospects 2004, p. 158, World Bank Publications, 2003 ISBN 978-0-8213-5582-4
- World Bank: Global Economic Prospects, 2004