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Service Jobs: More Than Just a Body of Work

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In an economy supposedly fueled by mouse clicks and computer scans, it's easy to forget how much work is still done by hand. Mike Rose hasn't forgotten. In fact, it's his mission as a writer and researcher to ensure that manual laborers get their due.

 

Rose, a UCLA education professor, spent several years observing workers and trainees in such occupations as waitressing, carpentry, hairdressing and plumbing. In his 2004 book The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, he documents the brainpower behind it all. On May 20, Rose will lead a discussion at the University of Pittsburgh about demolishing the wall we habitually place between the work of the mind -- see the New Economy's vaunted "symbolic analysts" -- and the physical labor that's typically lower in both status and pay.

 

Rose spent his earliest years in Altoona, where his Italian immigrant parents ran a spaghetti house during World War II. When the restaurant failed, the family moved West in search of work. In Los Angeles, Rose's mother, Rose (yes, "Rose Rose") worked as a waitress; her experiences, along with those of relatives including his uncle Frank, a welder for the Pennsylvania Railroad, helped formed Rose's view of labor.

 

Waitressing, for example, demands not only memory work and on-the-fly decision-making but the social intelligence to negotiate between angry cooks and antsy customers. We label it all "service." But as Rose demonstrates, "There's a lot of cognitive stuff that's going on behind that appearance of service."

 

Often, the workers and trainees Rose observed devalued their own roles, saying, "There's nothing to this. Any dummy can do this." Rose explores how Americans -- who prefer to regard their society as classless -- actually rank people socially via assessments of intelligence, usually suggested by the job someone holds.

 

Rose taught briefly at Carnegie Mellon in the '80s; his other books include Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America's Underprepared and Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America. The Mind at Work (due out in paperback in August) has implications for education, job training and the workplace itself. Undervaluing the intellectual component of vocational ed, for instance, perpetuates harmful stereotypes about workers. And assumptions that front-line laborers are unintelligent hinder job training and efforts to make industry more efficient.

 

If nothing else, Rose wants to erase the notion that today's "neck-up" work is something new, "like everything before 1975 was just pure back muscle," he quips. "That's one of the things this book wants to tweak a little bit."

Fri., May 20, 4 p.m., 501 Cathedral of Learning, Oakland; free. Info: 412-624-6509.

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