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What is a key worker?

We have heard a lot about key workers in the last 12 months. They are the people who have kept our society going throughout the pandemic.

But what is a key worker? How many key worker jobs could you name? A few obvious ones might spring to mind – like nurses, doctors, care workers and teachers – but there are plenty of other people we couldn’t do without, not just during the pandemic but at any time.

'What is a key worker? Get the answer and find out how you can become one'

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What is a key worker?

Bus drivers have put their safety on the line to keep
us moving

A key worker – also known as a critical worker or essential worker – is someone whose job is essential to the running of society. The term pre-dates the coronavirus pandemic. It was previously used to describe workers considered vital to a community who couldn't afford a house in that area due to high property prices. A scheme was created by the government in 2001 to provide these workers with state support to buy a home in the area.

You’ve probably become more familiar with the term in the last year or so, during the coronavirus pandemic. The term has been broadened to refer to many professions which society cannot do without.

The official list includes the following industries:

Examples of jobs within these industries include:

  • Bus drivers
  • Care workers
  • Cleaners
  • Doctors
  • Firefighters
  • Nurses
  • Paramedics
  • Police
  • Supermarket workers
  • Teachers
  • Teaching assistants
  • Transport and logistics workers

Why are key workers important?

Teacher with students
Teachers have supported students in school and at
home throughout the pandemic

Before the pandemic, many of these workers didn’t get the praise or attention they deserve. Many of them, such as supermarket staff and cleaners, were referred to as “low-skilled workers” by the government. Young people were often encouraged to value and aspire to high-paid roles in sectors such as investment banking. But when Covid-19 hit, we soon realised that without key workers, society cannot function. It is people like cleaners, delivery drivers, supermarket staff, nurses and school staff who are keeping us safe, healthy and happy at this time. Many people have also realised that society can do just fine without some of the more “prestigious” roles we were encouraged to prize before the pandemic.

You can think about this when planning your career. If you want a role in a socially beneficial profession, you could consider pursuing a career in one of the many key worker professions.

How do I become a key worker?

Becoming a key worker varies very much depending on the particular job you’d like to do. For example, it is possible to become a care worker with minimal preparatory training. However, to become a teacher, you will need to undertake a degree course followed by a teaching qualification. Nurses typically complete a nursing degree but recently a new apprenticeship programme has been introduced as an alternative.

We recommend taking a look at our careers guides in the following areas - and you can see plenty more in our How to become section:

Still unsure as to what is a key worker? You can also view the special series we launched at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s called Crisis Careers Heroes and, in it, we provide detailed information about different essential industries and the careers you can pursue within them, along with case studies and quotes from people working in those industries. You can view the series here.

Now we've answered the question "what is a key worker?", take a look at our Career Zones for more industry-specific career guidance.

Images: Lead image via ticketyboostudio, bus via Wikimedia Commons, teacher via DFID