With each passing year, the use of technology in manufacturing continues to grow, and blue-collar job requirements become more sophisticated, further widening the skills gap. Today’s age of smart manufacturing and distribution relies more and more on high-tech systems, sensors, feedback loops, and continuous automation. While some machining and distribution work is still manual, equipment is increasingly digitally driven.
As the modern supply-chain sector continues to evolve, so does the heretofore neat categorization of the workforce: namely, the assumption that “white-collar” workers think for a living, and “blue-collar” workers perform manual tasks. Leading supply-chain organizations today recognize the need for an entirely new type of employee. Call it the “new-collar” worker, one who is critical to the future of manufacturing and logistics.
Mass-scale digitalization of the supply chain requires a new-collar workforce equipped with specialized skills and training. For example, manufacturers will still need machinists, but to thrive in a global marketplace, the next generation of workers needs to possess technical and digital skills alongside critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities.
Keep in mind that individuals capable of performing new-collar jobs don’t need a four-year college degree. Instead, they’re trained through community colleges, vocational schools, software boot camps, high school technical education courses, or on-the-job apprenticeships and internships.
In short, new-collar workers can come from anywhere: your current factory floor, a high school program or non-traditional education path. All of us must become open to that reality.
While a new-collar workforce can be developed through both internal grooming and external recruiting efforts, hiring and retaining those employees promise to be a challenge. Industries from technology to healthcare need specialized workers as artificial intelligence, automation and digitalization make their way into many sectors.
So how can supply-chain employers attract new-collar workers in an increasingly digitized world, where other industries are competing for the same limited talent pool? Instead of focusing solely on degrees and previous job experience, employers must begin recruiting based on the potential of candidates to acquire new skills, as well as their general level of “trainability.” Human-resources leaders should begin identifying the key traits and skills necessary for success in this new-collar environment. Once an organization knows what it’s looking for, the next step is to modify the candidate assessment and interview process to focus on identifying employees with the right potential.
This approach applies to both internal and external candidates. For many organizations, upskilling or retraining existing workers is a great way bridge the skills gap. However, many overlook their own blue-collar workers or perceive them as easily replaceable. Instead, they should identify and upskill those existing blue-collar workers who have demonstrated a desire to learn and a propensity for problem-solving.
The good news for employers is that today’s blue-collar workers are extremely eager to learn new skills and earn upward mobility. According to EmployBridge’s 2019 Voice of the Blue-Collar Worker study, 95% of blue-collar workers are willing to invest their own time to learn new skills, 90% are interested in apprenticeships, and the majority believe pay increases should be earned by performance as opposed to tenure.
Unlike a decade ago, when manufacturing unemployment stood at 13.3%, today’s blue-collar workers are experiencing 3.7% unemployment, with more manufacturing and logistics jobs than there are people to fill them. With plenty of job choices, blue-collar workers are far more likely and able to leave jobs where skill-building and upward mobility opportunities aren’t offered. By providing work-based programs such as on-the-job training, apprenticeships, mentorships, and online skills training, employers can help groom their own new-collar workforces, while retaining institutional knowledge and curbing attrition rates.
The manufacturing and logistics industries are resurging with high-tech innovations, including AI and robotics. Unfortunately, the industries’ image among employees at large has yet to catch up, especially among recent generations who grew up with the “Big Five” tech giants — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google — as their business idols. At the same time, it’s these “digital natives” who may most easily be able to transition from smart phones and video games to running automation or computer-aided design (CAD) programs.
Unfortunately, industry’s quiet profile over the last decade, when talent was abundant, has contributed to the problem and now hampers recruiting efforts. The solution is to begin marketing your company, as well as the industry’s career potential, to high school graduates and those in vocational or technical programs and community colleges. Organizations need to be sure they’re matching their training and upskilling opportunities, as well as new-collar jobs, to the existing workforce. Promoting new-collar jobs that require digital or technical skills but not a college degree, or those that call for digital skills but previously didn’t, might well solve a critical skills gap.
There’s little question that the new-collar workforce is fundamental to the future of manufacturing, warehousing and distribution. Today and in the future, everyone will need to be problem solvers and technologically skilled. With manufacturing on pace to experience 2 million unfilled jobs by 2025, the skills needed to close this gap are changing. Even highly routine jobs will require improvisation and the use of critical thinking.
By attracting new-collar talent and retraining or upskilling existing workers to fill new roles created by technological change, employers have a clear opportunity to avoid a skills shortage. What’s more, new qualifications could facilitate the movement of former blue-collar workers into more secure, better-paying and more rewarding jobs.
Paul Seymour is president of EmployBridge's supply chain division.