People employed in elementary occupations usually perform simple and routine tasks which may require the use of hand-held tools and considerable physical effort.

Key facts:

  • People employed in elementary occupations are employed as: (i) cleaners and helpers; (ii) agricultural forestry and fishery labourers; (iii) labourers in mining construction, manufacturing and transport; (iv) food preparation assistants; (v) street and related sales and service workers; and (iv) refuse and other elementary jobs.
  • In the workplace, routine, autonomy, servicing and attending are the most important tasks and skills of elementary workers.
  • Around 23 million people were employed in elementary occupations in 2018.  Employment in the occupation grew by nearly 9 per cent between 2006 and 2018.
  • Employment is projected to grow by 10 per cent over the period 2018 to 2030. This indicates there will be just under 2.5 million new job openings in the occupation by 2030.  At the same time, it is projected that around 13.5 million people will leave the occupation and will need to be replaced. If one adds the extra number of people projected to be employed in the occupation by 2030 to the number of people who will need to be replaced, then it is apparent that just under 16 million elementary workers’ jobs will need to be filled between 2018 and 2030. 
  • Most people working in elementary occupations have medium level qualifications (49 per cent in 2018) and the share with this level of qualification is expected to increase by 2030 to 54 per cent. Over time the percentage with low level qualifications has been decreasing and is expected to continue to do so in the future.  In 2018, 42 per cent had low level qualifications and this is projected to fall to 30 per cent by 2030.

Tasks and skills

People employed in elementary occupations usually perform simple and routine tasks which may require the use of hand-held tools and considerable physical effort. Most occupations in this major occupational group involve skills that require completion of primary education or the first stage of basic education and, in relation to some jobs, a short period of on-the-job training. In summary, elementary jobs are ones that anyone with the requisite level of educational attainment could fulfil.

Elementary jobs can be divided between the following occupational groups [1].

  • Cleaners and helpers are usually engaged in sweeping or vacuum cleaning, washing and polishing floors, furniture and other objects; taking care of linen and bed-making; helping with preparation of meals and cleaning in kitchens; etc.
  • Agricultural, forestry and fishery labourers will undertake tasks related to digging, raking and shovelling using hand tools; loading, unloading and stacking supplies, produce and other materials; watering, thinning, weeding and tending crops by hand or using hand tools; planting, harvesting, picking and collecting produce by hand; feeding, watering, and cleaning animals; etc.
  • Labourers in mining, construction, manufacturing and transport will typically be engaged in digging holes; sorting, loading, unloading, moving, stacking and storing materials, equipment and products; cleaning machinery, equipment, tools and work sites; packing and unpacking material and products; etc.
  • Food preparation assistants will typically carry out tasks related to preparing simple or pre-prepared foods and beverages such as sandwiches; washing, cutting, measuring and mixing foods for cooking; operating cooking equipment such as grills, microwaves and deep-fat fryers; cleaning kitchens; etc.
  • Street and related sales and service workers will perform tasks such as buying or receiving items for sale, or making simple items; loading and unloading goods; displaying goods or calling out to attract customers’ attention; approaching potential customers on the street and offering goods for sale; etc.
  • Refuse workers and other elementary workers will collect, load and unload garbage; sweep streets, parks and other public places; chop firewood; carry water; beat dust out of carpets and perform other odd-job tasks.

According to Eurofound's Job Monitor, routine, autonomy, servicing and attending are the most important tasks and skills of elementary workers.

Figure 1: Importance of tasks and skills of elementary workers

Note: The importance of tasks and skills is measured on 0-1 scale, where 0 means least important and 1 means most important.

The employment level of workers in elementary occupations is expected to grow by over 10 per cent between 2018 and 2030, following on from growth of nearly 9 per cent between 2006 and 2018. This overall growth conceals differences between the various types of elementary occupations.  Whereas employment for labourers in mining, construction, etc., is expected to increase in the period to 2030, employment as street and related sales and service workers is projected to fall.

Between 2018 and 2030 nearly 2.5 million new jobs will have been created. Employment growth of elementary workers is expected in 24 out of 28 European countries.

Figure 2: Future employment growth of elementary workers in European countries (2018-2030, in %)

But this near 10 per cent growth in employment understates the true of level of employment demand. Over the period 2018-2030 an estimated 13.5 million people are projected to leave the occupation for one reason or another such as retirement[3]. Given the projected increase in employment over the same period, this will result in there being around 15.9 million job openings that will need to be filled between 2018 and 2030.

Figure 3: Future job openings of elementary workers (2018-2030)

Workers in elementary occupations span all sectors. Cleaners and helpers are employed mainly in administration and other services and other services. Most agricultural labourers work in the agriculture sector, as expected; and labourers in mining, construction and manufacturing are mainly found in manufacturing and wholesale and retail, and construction. Food preparation assistants are found mainly in the accommodation and retail sector and those in street and related sales mainly in wholesale and retail. Refuse workers are found across a variety of sectors with public administration having the highest concentration.

Historically, those employed in elementary occupations have had low or medium level qualifications, but over time there has been an increase in the overall level of qualification held by those working in the occupation.  In 2018, 49 per cent had medium level qualifications, but this is projected to increase to 54 per cent by 2030.  In contrast, 42 per cent of those in the occupation had low level qualifications in 2018 but this is projected to fall to 30 per cent by 2030.  Between 2018 and 2030, those with high level qualifications are expected to increase from 9 per cent to 16 per cent.

More information on employment trends for this occupation can be found elsewhere on the Skills Panorama.

Which drivers of change will affect their skills?

The employment growth in elementary occupations can be attributed to the polarisation of skills in the labour market. There are a number of factors underlying this trend:

  • the theory of task-based technological change (TBTC)  [4] that identifies technological change to mainly impact routine jobs, which do not require their incumbents to respond to outside stimuli. Accordingly, their jobs can be replaced by technology, which automates the tasks workers once carried out. It has been observed that routine jobs, susceptible to being replaced by automation, are typically found in the middle of the occupational structure (administrative jobs and skilled production jobs)  [5]. Higher level skilled jobs which require their incumbents to utilise cognitive skills cannot be readily substituted by automation (at least to the same extent). Lower skilled jobs, such as those found in hospitality, require their incumbents to interact with customers such that they are less vulnerable to substitution by automation compared with middle-level jobs. The greater use of robots in the future may have an impact on this relationship, but historically automation seems to have had the result of hollowing out the labour market.  [6] Additionally, some elementary jobs, such as those in agriculture, are more susceptible to automation.  [7] Moreover, remaining jobs are unlikely to experience up-skilling: rather, new devices are likely to reduce the demand for, e.g., heavy lifting, etc. with simple machine operation replacing manual labour.
  • globalisation is another key driver of change for elementary occupations whereby many jobs have been transferred to countries with lower labour costs.  [8] This has been observed in manufacturing where many manual production jobs have been transferred to low labour cost countries outside the EU.
  • finally, rising levels of income inequality have created a demand from well-off people for a range of personal services (for example, cleaning), and a strong supply of much less well-off people willing to provide these services.  [9] This has been observed in relation to work-life balance, where some large corporations provide a range of ‘concierge services’ to their senior executives so that they are able to spend more time at work. The impact of this is to stimulate job growth at the lower end of the occupational distribution. Much of this work involving personal services is non-routine in nature and thus is less susceptible to automation, too.
  • As a part of its Ditigitalization and future of work project, Cedefop estimates the risks of automation for occupations. The most exposed occupations are those with significant share of tasks that can be automated – operation of specialised technical equipment, routine or non-autonomous tasks  – and those with a small reliance on communication, collaboration, critical thinking and customer-serving skills. The risk of automation is further accentuated in those (occupations) in which people report they have little access to professional training that could help them to cope with labour market changes. Elementary workers belong to occupations where the automation risk is average. Within this large group, the risk is high for technical or agricultural labourers; on the hand is is low for food preparation helpers or cleaners and helpers.

If one considers some of the drivers of demand for elementary occupations in specific sectors, there are additional issues such as:

  • the impact of an ageing population on the demand for personal care services (health and social care) which will undoubtedly require workers in elementary occupations to provide non-routine services such as personal and home care involving activities such as bathing, foot care, etc.;
  • changes in consumer preferences affecting elementary occupations in the retail sectors. There is increasing use of online retailing and use of self-serve check outs and kiosks in various outlets (including shops, banks and airports). Such change has negative implications for the numbers of elementary workers, although in the case of online shopping there is some compensating increase in the number of those required in warehousing and logistics. For those still working in retail outlets and others, there is likely to be greater need for customer service and communication skills.
  • there is also demand for more personalised, face-to-face customer service skills to be provided by workers in elementary occupations in areas such as retail (particularly up-market retailers) and hospitality (e.g. concierge services). The tasks involved in providing such services are mainly non-routine and therefore require good communication and customer service skills.

How can these skill needs be met?

Many elementary jobs provide a means of labour market entry for people. In this sense, the time spent by people in elementary jobs may be transitional. But because wage levels are low and opportunities for ongoing professional development and training may be limited, there is a danger that people become trapped in low wage, low skill work in elementary occupations. Policy and regulation regarding contractual arrangements, work conditions and working time also have implications, many negative, for elementary workers; for example some types of flexible working arrangements particularly in sectors affected by seasonal fluctuations (e.g. care work, retail, hospitality). These arrangements, such as zero-hour and part-time contracts are more frequent in some Member States over the past decade and more common for low-skilled workers in low-paid jobs  [10] and reduce even further the likelihood of their being able to access skills development opportunities.  [11] The skill challenge, therefore, is to improve the employability of people working in elementary occupations such that they have the opportunity to experience some upward occupational mobility.  [12]

A significant share of jobs at elementary occupations is undertaken by third-country migrants  [13]. Many of these immigrants have no or poor language skills of the host country and may be low-qualified; or have higher qualifications, but no documentation of them. Therefore, more than two in five third-country nationals residing in the EU and holding high-level qualifications are found in medium or even low-skilled occupations [14]. Developing their skills will improve their integration into local societies and their productivity as workers. The New Skills Agenda of the European Commission identifies the importance of ripping the existing skills of migrants through validation and recognition of their skills and qualifications; as well as the need to support their skill formation through dedicated learning initiatives.

Almost by definition, jobs listed as elementary occupations especially in the primary sector (such as agriculture or fishing) have low requirements for skills or educational attainment levels  [15]. But elementary jobs do not need to be devoid of training and qualifications. As the example below indicates, the British Institute of Cleaning Science has introduced a qualification for cleaners – the Cleaning Professional's Skills Suite (CPSS) 2.0 Qualification.

What do I need to do to achieve the CPSS 2.0 qualification?

To be awarded CPSS 2.0 accreditation the minimum requirement is the three Mandatory units: (1) Chemical competence; (2) Safe assembly & care of equipment; and (3) Storage of equipment & materials. These mandatory skills ensure the safety of the operative, the users of the building, and sustainability of the building. Following the successful completion of the three mandatory units, operatives will then learn what skills are directly relevant to them and the environment they are cleaning in, tailored to meet the specific needs of the business.

Source: British Institute of Cleaning Science

A further challenge in relation to skills is the relatively high incidence of over-qualification in elementary occupations  [16]. This may reflect two issues: the trend toward more people with high skills (and often higher levels of educational attainment) being employed in low-skilled jobs  [17]; and, a tendency for workers in low skilled jobs to more often report, compared to workers in higher skilled jobs, that they are over-skilled  [18]. Where workers’ skills are under-utilised or where they are overqualified and there is little room for progression (as is often the case in elementary occupations), there are concerns over recruitment and retention.


All web-links were last accessed February 7th, 2020.

[3] More information on replacement demand and how it drives employment across sectors, can be found on the Skills Panorama here.

[4] Autor, D. & Dorn, D., (2009), ‘The Growth of Low Skill Service Jobs and the Polarization of the U.S. Labor Market’ National Bureau of Economic Research: Working Paper 15150; Autor, D, Levy, F & Murnane, R 2003, ‘The skill content of recent technological change: an experimental exploration’ Quarterly Journal of Economics. 118(4), 1279-1333.

[5] Goos, M., Manning, A. & Salomons, A., (2009), Job polarization in Europe”, American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings, 99(2), 58-63

[6] CEDEFOP, (2016), Preparing for the Age of Robots, web log post on the Skills Panorama, viewed 30 June 2016

[7] Deloitte, (2015), Man and Machine: Robots on the Rise? The Impact of Automation on the Swiss Job Market

[8] Goos, M, Manning, A. & Salomons, A., (2011), Explaining Job Polarization: the Roles of Technology, Offshoring and Institutions, Centre for Economic Studies Discussion Paper 11.34, University of Leuven

[9] Goos, M. & Manning, A., (2007), Lousy and lovely jobs. The rising polarisation of work in Britain”, The Review of Economics and Statistics, 89(1), 118-133

[10] Eurofound, (2015), New forms of employment, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg

[11] Wilson, R., (2007), ‘Trends in employment creation in Europe’, Perspectives on employment and social policy coordination in the European Union, viewed 01 July 2016

[12] European Commission DG Enterprise and Industry 2014 High Level Forum for a Better Functioning Food Supply Chain (See chapter 6)

[13] For example, see European Research Area, MAFE project 2013 African migrants at work: Labour market integration in Europe & re-integration of returnees, MAFE PROJECT Policy Briefing No. 4

[14] Communication from the Commission to the European parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, 2016, Action Plan on the integration of third country nationals

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dolphin, T., (2015), ‘Technology, globalisation and the future of work in Europe: essays on employment in a digitized economy’ Institute for Public Policy Research London. (see Figure 14)             

[18] CEDEFOP, (2015), Skills, qualifications and jobs in the EU: the making of a perfect match?- Evidence from Cedefop’s European skills and jobs survey (see figure 14)