Skill originated from the Old Norse word skil, a noun meaning difference or distinction (Oxford English Dictionary). It developed in Middle English to mean a sense of what was just or right. For instance, in his book, Active Policy of a Prince, George Ashby wrote about ruling over a state by saying “thei shall reule bi Reason and skele” (Oxford English Dictionary9). Skill also has an important distinction from talent. A skill is something that can be learned and fostered through education, whereas talent is something that a person is born with.
Many work centered societies have evolved to classify skills as a kind of embodied cultural capital. According to Pierre Bourdieu in his chapter “The Forms of Captial”, this is the accumulation of “culture, cultivation, bildung” and something that “costs time” to develop (Bourdieu 18). This can be seen in the way that the term skill has been incorporated into many educational institutions. For instance, the University of Leeds advertises the opportunity to learn “academic skills” through workshops and consultations (University of Leeds Library) and the University of Cambridge offers a list of “Transferable Skills” for philosophy undergraduates (University of Cambridge). These particular skills that they outline such as “communication”, “organizational”, and “interpersonal” are framed as necessities for the students’ future careers.
Another way in which skills are used as capital is through internships. Many internships claim to offer the chance to develop work-related skills. Often these skills are used in replacement of actual monetary payment. As Madeleine Schwartz writes in her essay “Opportunity Costs: The True Price of Internships”, “even long months working unpaid are described as “an educational experience,” “a networking opportunity,” “a chance to try something new.”” (5). This mindset has turned skills into a form of payment. This also illustrates how much work societies value skills; they are valued enough that people are willing to work full-time for months for no money in hopes to gain them.
The term skills is also commonly used for resumes. For instance, in an artical called “The Best Skills to List on Your Resume”, Alison Doyle asks “what are the best skills to include on your resume? Which skill set will help you get hired?” (Alison Doyle). This use of the word skills again emphasizes how they have become a cultural commodity. Under this definition, skills are things that people can collect to make more money or get a better job. This treatment of skills as a commodified noun has also expanded the definition. Commonly referred to skills can vary from communication to Excel, from interpersonal to mathematical.
Recently, the term skilled has come to be associated with skilled and unskilled labor. It distinguishes between laborers who require a large amount of training for their job versus those who do not. The worker is then valued–and often paid–according to how many skills they possess. One way in which skilled labor is valued over unskilled is the political rhetoric surrounding immigration. On Nov. 20th, 2014, in his speech outlining immigration policies, Former President Barack Obama, said “I’ll make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy” (The Washington Post). Here the immigrants that Obama values in his speech are specifically those who are “high-skilled”. Thus skills are not only valuable enough that people are willing to take them in replace of monetary compensation but they are also so valuable that they make it easier to gain legal citizenship status within certain countries.
This sort of political rhetoric that devalues unskilled laborers also often feeds off of assumptions based on race, class, gender, and immigration status about who is “skilled” in the first place. This can be seen in one of Theresa May’s recent speeches where she says “to. . . someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration, life simply doesn’t seem fair” (Keynote Speech). Here she both devalues “low-skilled” labor and feeds into the highly problematic stereotype that immigrants are unskilled.
This distinction between the skilled and unskilled is also used to emphasize class lines. Since skills can be defined as a form of embodied cultural capital, this means that, according to Bourdieu, they depend “on the length of time for which his family can provide him with the free time, i.e., time free from economic necessity” (19). The time a person can spend to gather these sorts of valuable skills depends on the economic circumstances and opportunities based on race, gender, sexuality, etc. that people have while growing up. Often people without college degrees or without specific training in trade are considered unskilled, which means unskilled often signifies a similar meaning to uneducated, and lower-class.
- Oxford English Dictionary. “Skill”. Oxford University Press, 2019. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/180865?rskey=XgEVgM&result=1#eid
- Bourdieu, Pierre.”The Forms of Capital”. 1986.
- University of Leeds Website. “Academic Skills”. Leeds: University of Leeds, 2019. https://library.leeds.ac.uk/info/1401/academic_skills
- University of Cambridge Website. “Transferable Skills”. University of Cambridge, 2019. https://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/curr-students/ugrads-after-degree-folder/ugrads-trans-skills
- Schwartz, Madeline. Dissent, “Opportunity Costs: The True Price of Internships”. 2013.
- Doyle, Allison. The Balance Careers, “The Best Skills to List on Your Resume”. 2019. https://www.thebalancecareers.com/list-of-the-best-skills-for-resumes-2062422
- Obama, Barack. The Washington Post, “Transcript: Obama’s Immigration Speech”. 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/transcript-obamas-immigration-speech/2014/11/20/14ba8042-7117-11e4-893f-86bd390a3340_story.html?utm_term=.a0b218cea0eb
- Payne, Adam. Business Insider, “‘MAYISM’: Theresa May now owns the massive gap left by the Labour party”. 2016. https://www.businessinsider.de/theresa-may-keynote-conservative-conference-speech-labour-2016-10?r=US&IR=T