Our value judgments are in need of a shakeup

Teaching is on one of those highly skilled roles vital to our society which I believe are undervalued.
PETER MEECHAM/FAIRFAX NZ

Teaching is on one of those highly skilled roles vital to our society which I believe are undervalued.

It seems to me that as a species we have a real problem in assigning value appropriately.

I'm thinking specifically here of the jobs we have, of the roles we each play in our society.

I saw an interesting post this week. Someone had photographed part of a newspaper "factbox" breaking down new regulations announced by Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse.

Two bullet points were highlighted. The first, answering the question "Who is affected?" stipulated that anyone "who earns less than about $49,000 a year once in New Zealand won't get a skilled migrant category visa".

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The second, under the question "What is the highly skilled category?" explained that "People who will earn more than $73,299 will automatically be classified as highly skilled".

Accompanying the photo was the comment: "As someone who works in human rights and hospitality I find the equation 'skilled' = 'well-paid' questionable. They don't always go together ..."

I can't claim to speak for those fields, but in a general sense I completely agree with the second part of that comment. Skilled doesn't always equal well-paid. In fact, it often doesn't.

I can see a certain logic in regarding potential migrants who will earn above a certain relatively high threshold as skilled. There aren't too many jobs out there paying more than $73,000 for which applicants won't have to acquire specific skills through study and training.

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But that's not her point, or mine.

It's the fact that being skilled, however you define that, doesn't always equate to being well-paid.

Which brings me to the point about how we assign value to roles.

Because it seems to me the roles we really should value are those we need the most, that we simply can't do without. The sheer numbers of these people we need to function as a civilised society should give their roles huge intrinsic value.

We need teachers by the thousands, nurses too, emergency personnel in a range of roles, police. All of these roles, and others I've probably overlooked, are inherently valuable, because they allow the rest of us to get on with our own lives knowing these vital areas are covered.

And yet where do we so often hear of shortages? Not enough teachers, because many give it away in disillusionment after a few years due to feeling inadequately supported, a shortage of nurses because graduates have headed off to work overseas where they can earn more and get rid of their hefty student loans faster, not enough police to cover areas where they're sorely needed, sole charge stations in small towns shut due to difficulties in keeping them staffed.

That list of issues, and pardon the seemingly endless sentence, is not plucked from my imagination. It's a representative selection of cases I've read and heard about over a long period. I could search our story files and find hundreds of specific cases, but you get my drift.

These are all roles that are immensely valuable, and skilled, yet are habitually undervalued.

I'm not saying nothing is done about that, because the sheer numbers of people in these vital roles means the regular clamour over pay and conditions is heard across the nation. And successive governments have had to balance the cost to the taxpayer against the potential disruption to vital services in ensuring deals made with these sectors get over the line.

But let's not be kidding ourselves that the deals finally signed make these roles more desirable. The very fact there is a clamour on such a regular basis reflects the fact these roles are undervalued.

And it seems to me there's something fundamentally warped about a society in which the skilled roles most needed are somehow least valued. No. I don't know the answer to it, but I'm by no means alone there.

You wouldn't find All Blacks being undervalued, would you? There might be some among their number - surely not many, but it is possible - who think they're worth more than they're paid, but I don't think any member of that squad could honestly think his skilled role was undervalued. If he did, though, a better-paid option would be just a phone call or two from his agent away.

Perhaps it's the fact that there are so few of them, and it takes so much hard work to get there, that makes the roles of people like All Blacks – who we certainly want as a society, but we don't strictly need – overvalued relative to those of others we absolutely can't do without, despite the fact they've also been through hugely rigorous training. I don't think the fact there are far more of them makes them any less valuable.

Maybe we should start selling tickets to see teachers teach our kids, nurses nurse our sick loved ones. Maybe that would make us value those people more.

In fact, if we really wanted to shake up our thinking on how we value people, we should take it beyond the skilled. Many of the aged care workers - the vast majority of them women - set to benefit from a historic pay deal announced this week are regarded as unskilled, yet their high pressure, sometimes literally s****y jobs are hugely important to a functioning society. The fact they've historically been so undervalued - both because they are women and because of the way their roles are viewed - is a national disgrace, and the pay deal no more than they deserve. In fact, given how long the injustice had persisted, it falls well short.

Hopefully, though, it's a step on the road to recognising the true value of those we simply can't do without.

 - Stuff

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