What Is Skilled Labor?

Skilled labor is a segment of the workforce that has specialized know-how, training, and experience to carry out more complex physical, or mental tasks than routine job functions. Skilled labor is generally characterized by higher or specialized education, as well as expertise levels attained through training and experience, and likewise generally corresponds with higher wages. This can be contrasted with unskilled labor, which refers to individuals with a limited range of skills to use in the workplace.

Key Takeaways

  • Skilled labor refers to highly trained, educated, or experienced segments of the workforce that can complete more complex mental or physical tasks on the job.
  • Skilled labor is often specialized and may require a prolonged period of training and experience.
  • Skilled labor, which can be contrasted with unskilled or low-skilled workers, usually commands higher incomes.
  • Skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are essential in many industries.
  • Skilled laborers work in a variety of jobs in both the trades and with white-collar companies.

Understanding Skilled Labor

Skilled labor in an increasingly competitive world is essential. Developing countries in Asia are rapidly building up their professional labor pools. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Western European countries, which have dominated economic advancements since the mid-1800s, are paying more attention to preserving and growing their skilled labor workforce.

Corporate America (an informal term for large companies) has extensive formal training programs for new and existing workers, while small and medium-sized firms may have specialized programs. But if not, on-the-job training to build up skills is the norm.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) also provides government-sanctioned programs through the Employment & Training Administration, American Job Center network, and CareerOne Stop, which serves as a directory of local training programs.

Some countries in Europe have been at the vanguard of developing skilled labor. Germany, in particular, is considered a role model with its apprenticeship programs throughout its corporate sector—in auto plants, machine manufacturing facilities, technology hardware, software development offices, and banking offices. The U.S. is just beginning to replicate this training model for skilled labor.


Work that requires no specific education level or specialized experience is often available to the unskilled labor force.

Skilled Labor vs. Unskilled Labor

Unskilled labor is the conceptual opposite of skilled labor. Unskilled labor is a workforce segment associated with a limited skill set or minimal economic value for the work performed. Unskilled labor is generally characterized by lower educational attainment, such as a high school diploma or lack thereof, typically resulting in smaller wages. However, it is essential to note that some trades that qualify as skilled labor do not require degrees beyond high school.

A term similar in nature to unskilled labor is low-skilled labor. While low-skilled labor also denotes a lack of education or training necessary to become employed, it may be slightly different from unskilled labor, depending on the context. It may require basic skills training for the work to be completed successfully. Low-skilled positions may include entry-level positions within the foodservice and retail environments.

Semiskilled or mid-skilled labor involves persons or positions where a level of basic knowledge, experience, or training is required to complete the tasks successfully. Generally, the skills required are not overly specialized but do have more complexity than unskilled positions. Examples of semiskilled positions may include delivery drivers, customer service representatives, and entry-level administrative assistants.

The Future of Skilled Labor

With rapid changes in the economy concerning the growth of knowledge-based jobs, the skilled laborers of the future may be different from the skilled labor of the past and present. The "rise of the machine" is engendering great debate and a certain level of anxiety among skilled workers, who wonder if they will eventually be replaced on the job by a robot or a computer algorithm.

Those who have yet to join the working world may wonder what skills will lead to gainful employment in a new era. High-end manufacturing and many professional services that require specialized knowledge such as medicine and finance may soon depend on workers having skills in robotics, as AI technology takes a foothold within some industries. Skills in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are essential to staying competitive in the modern global workforce.