Why Your Business Doesn't Need Dispensable Workers

In business school we learned about two labeled worker groups - the primary and the secondary workers. Primary workers are hired for career-type jobs, seen as highly skilled, receive high pay, are offered career advancement, are given employment security and companies view their hire as a significant investment. In contrast, secondary workers are viewed as low skill, low pay, dispensable, easily replaced or subcontracted.

I have worked as both a secondary and primary worker. I’ve watched people traverse the secondary labor market in many jobs I’ve had. I’ve watched family and friends work in both markets. The difference between them is astounding. As a business owner, your perspective on your employees and new hires can vastly influence their performance, dedication and ownership of their position. I’ve watched people work their entire lives being viewed as a secondary worker and their employers continually missing out on the excellent ideas, value and creativity that they could offer the company.

The inherent problem with viewing anyone as a secondary worker is that it is wrong.

No one is dispensable or easily replaced.

Everyone has true value, perspective, ideas and unique creativity that they bring to the job. I worked as a cashier at a fast-casual chain for a short time and was hired to replace an older woman, let’s call her Judy, that had worked there since the franchise location opened many years ago. It was immediately evident to me when Judy trained me and even more so after she left, that she would be missed. She had a sweet, calm and caring disposition that was completely counter-culture to the fast atmosphere. She was not easily stressed and she possessed a wisdom I was jealous of. One day, after serving an elderly man, she said that she tried to have conversations with customers because it could be the only interaction they have with a person all day. On her last day, Judy traded numbers with many customers so that they could continue the relationships they had formed. After she left, many people asked where Judy was. Judy was the most highly skilled customer service person I’ve ever met.

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Though Judy was hired as a secondary worker, there was nothing secondary about her. She engaged with people in such a way that she was a joy to work with and I’m sure generated revenue for the franchise. During her time there, she never moved up to manager. She could easily have been viewed as dispensable - yet during her last few days, I heard the district manager ask her what they could do to get her to stay. There was nothing secondary about Judy and there’s nothing secondary about anyone. Judy wasn’t hired because she was highly skilled in customer service. She was hired because the new franchise needed workers. In fact, in my 4 years living near this franchise, I never noticed a time when the “now hiring” sign was taken down - they were always going through “dispensable” workers. 

 If you’re considering someone for a position at your business, then they are worthy of investment. If you think that their ethos lines up with your business, then they should be viewed as a person that is going to partner with you in growing your business in their own unique role. Even if they are “only” college students going to be there for the summer, they are not secondary. They are not dispensable. You have no idea the creativity, potential and skill they hold inside of them. To pigeonhole them as secondary is to discourage them to use their inherent skills.

I’m encouraging you to refuse the primary-secondary mentality. I'm encouraging you to change the game completely with your business. When all are valued, all win. When only some are valued, ultimately, all lose because you miss out on what the so-called secondary workers can bring to the team.