When Transferable Skills Can't Transfer: Examining Occupational Stigma on Worker Mobility

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
259 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Sarah Blithe, University of Nevada Reno, Reno, NV
Breanna *, University of Nevada Reno, Reno, NV
Anna Wiederhold Wolfe, University of Nevada Reno, Reno, NV
Recently, Forbes magazine published a list of the 10 skills employers want most in college graduates (Adams, 2014). Nine out of the ten skills listed are so-called transferable skills, or skills which are not directly related to a single industry or occupation, and which can transfer from job to job (Begum & Newman, 2009; Bennet, 2002; Bridges, 1993). In 2015, the most important of these skills include communication, computer software and social media proficiency, and selling or influencing others (Adams, 2014). Employers seek these universal skills when hiring, and are less concerned about industry or occupational experience, as long as these kinds of core skills are visible on applicants’ resumes.  

            However important transferable skills are for employers, some individuals have a difficult or impossible experience in transfering their skills. People in stigmatized occupations or industries must often hide their work history, which creates challenges for advertising their transferable skills. This presents a problem of mobility, particularly when people in stigmatized occupations desire to move into non-stigmatized occupations.

            In this paper, we argue that employers’ reliance on work history transparency and their desire for transferable skills creates a paradox for workers in stigmatized fields. These workers must disclose their work history to reveal their transferable skills. At the same time, they often cannot disclose their work history and the valuable skills gained in their stigmatized occupations. This prevents the transfer of skills, and ultimately, mobility out of stigmatized occupations.         

            Based on interviews with and observations of workers in Nevada’s legal brothels, we ask: what skills do sex workers develop and how (does) the stigma associated with their occupation influence their transfer into other occupations? To frame this study, we review knowledge about individual mobility, particularly as so many individuals were recently occupationally displaced during the Great Recession (Cha, 2014; Fox, 1994). We think through how work has changed; previous ideologies about working in a company for life replaced with the reality that workers can and will have multiple careers in multiple organizations through their lives, and workers who are forced to demonstrate flexible skills (Ashcroft, 2004; Bennet, 2002; Krauss-Leichert, 2001). Next, we review literature on stigmatized occupations (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999; Baran, Rogelberg & Lopina, 2012; Tyler, 2011; Waltz, Santuzzi, & Finkelstein, 2013) and begin to build an argument that stigmatized occupations have constraints around disclosure, which can inadvertently force individuals to stay in stigmatized occupations because they cannot meet the transparency demands of employers in non-stigmatized occupations (Cherney & Fitzgerals, 2014; McKnight et al., 2009; More, Stuewig, & Tangney, 2013; Zaidi et al., 2012).

            To answer our research questions, we collected data using a blend of methods, including autoethnography, participant observation, oral history techniques, and qualitative, semi-structured interviewing with brothel workers and owners in Nevada’s legal brothels. Very early on in the project, a theme emerged which we initially coded as “skills.” The sex workers interviewed spoke clearly about the business strategies they used on a daily basis. These skills included skills such as: client management software and strategies, negotiation, interpersonal communication, sales skills, organization, travel arrangements, marketing, creative directing of photo and video shoots, blogging, website management, business licensing, business strategy, time management, and team work. However, they also spoke about their frustration in having to hide their knowledge because of the stigma associated with their profession. For example, Elizabeth shared the following story about her experience hiding skills in her internship:

During my time away from working as a sex worker, I took on a social media marketing internship. From my brothel experience, I had a lot of experience with social media marketing already, so I thought the internship would be fairly easy for me. The work was easy, but the difficulty was that I couldn’t express when things were easy, because I was supposed to be a newbie. My coworkers and boss did not know about my brothel past, and even if they did, it would be awkward for me to bring it up so casually. I never wanted to run into the situation of me being knowledgeable about something, or already knowing how to do what was being taught to me, and them ask how I knew these things since I didn’t have the proper experience on my resume. I was often frustrated because I felt like I was being micromanaged over projects and tasks that didn’t need someone looking over my shoulder constantly and monitoring my every move to make sure I was doing every little thing right.

In this example, it is clear how Elizabeth felt constrained to share her skills, and instead pretended to learn skills she had already learned. A number of sex workers shared similar examples to highlight a wide variety of skills they acquired as sex workers but that they could not share with others.

            The paper concludes with our discussion of the problem of transparency requirements for stigmatized workers seeking mobility out of their occupations. In the business management sectors, transparency is considered the gold standard in interviewing and management. Hiring managers, for example, regularly look to previous experience to root out transferable skills, which may be impossible for stigmatized workers to discuss. We argue that transparency itself is a “God term” (Burke, 1945/1991) which, in practice, can discipline people with stigmatized occupational histories. This research has obvious implications for stigmatized workers, however it also speaks to workers in non-stigmatized careers who have secrecy requirements (for example, psychiatrists, lawyers, or members of classified government positions). These kinds of workers may also be constrained by the demand for transparency which is currently built into most organizational structures.