WSJ: Blue-Collar Workers Make the Leap to Tech Jobs, No College Degree Necessary
The pandemic has helped catapult Americans in low-paying roles into more upwardly mobile careers
This post is a reflection on Vanessa Fuhrmans and Kathryn Dill’s article in the Wall Street Journal describing the post-COVID shift into “new collar” jobs – transitioning from hourly or blue collar jobs into roles that are technology-enabled, with better pay and schedules. This shift reflects a change in what companies look for from a qualification perspective: companies are eliminating college-degree requirements and focusing on developing candidates based on their skills rather than their degrees. Additionally, companies are willing to train new employees with skills including coding, cybersecurity, and healthcare to fill positions.
The way in which this upskilling is happening varies: according to the Oliver Wyman Forum Global Consumer Sentiment Survey 2021, workers who switched or plan to switch careers to a better job acquired new skills during the pandemic in the following ways:
– Free course: 59%
– Social media: 42%
– Paid course: 38%
– Free website: 21%
– Books: 16%
– Paid website: 8%
– Went to School: 2%
The variety of ways in which employees can upskill remotely and flexibly then begs a follow up question – while these job switchers clearly demonstrate drive, determination, and grit, how should their newfound skills be assessed? Are they comparable to college or post-secondary degrees?
The shift away from degree evaluation makes it harder for managers and HR to assess talent – instead of determining whether an employee is qualified based on traditional standards, employers must now learn entirely new systems and processes, both in terms of credentials (i.e. the course) as well as qualifications (i.e. whether the candidate is capable of doing the work). Do free courses and websites actually train prospective employees adequately?
The ambiguity related to the quality of online courses makes it more challenging for employers. Additionally, in a tight labor market, it puts the burden on employers to construct systems that can test the skills and qualifications appropriately. It also creates confusion for prospective “new collar” workers – how do they know if the program they commit 100 hours to, or thousands of dollars to, will actually yield a job in the desired field? Even online college degrees are sometimes viewed as “false promises,” taking advantage of the underprivileged under the guise of career advancement.
This then prompts a follow up – should individual employers establish training programs? This would ensure the quality of the training for purposes of the specific role, but it would be incredibly inefficient: most small and mid-sized companies do not have the resources to create such a program. Further, these programs would be employer-specific, thus locking the employees into jobs at the firm. In contrast, a graduate or post-graduate degree affords flexibility.
Further, are these programs that can foster future leaders, or predominantly back-office, support staff? Answering that question is important – for those job-seekers who want remote, hyper-flexible hours, are they consciously or unconsciously opting-out of potential leadership and advancement opportunities at their company? It will be years before we have data that accurately assesses whether remote emploees are at a disadvantage from a career progression perspective. For some, this might be perfectly fine – the trade off for flexibility will be well worth it. However, it’s important to be conscious of potential drawbacks as well, particularly as more dollars are invested into career-switching training programs.