From Blue Collar to New Collar

“New Collar” work – will it work for managers and HR?

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.


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Student comments on From Blue Collar to New Collar

  1. Hi Grace, I think you ask a lot of interesting questions concerning skill assessments. Here’s my perspective on the college v. self-taught aspect as I’m finishing up my first year in the data science program. A motivated person could learn everything technical that I’ve learned thus far from Medium articles and YouTube videos (which I often lean on anyways). Personally, I need the formal schooling environment to learn this stuff, but the information is definitely out there. After I graduate, I’m sure there will be self taught data scientists out there who could code circles around me which makes it harder for hiring managers to differentiate between me and Candidate X who is self-taught prodigy. I think this is where coding interviews for “new collar” jobs and other analytics/dev roles help distinguish the real players. Also, coding interviews take away some of the pressure to establish training programs because they can just pile their training objectives into one assessment. Seems like a simple solution, but it raises more questions. What if the best coder doesn’t fit the culture? Is the best coder always the best for the job? etc. Additionally, coding interviews really only work for jobs that involve slinging code on the daily.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this, Grace! A part of me wonders how much of the rise of “new collar” workers is permanent versus a temporary band aid during a time of severe labor shortages. Time will tell if companies should ramp up skills-based hiring practices and internal training. I do think we are learning more and more that the traditional educational programs do not necessarily breed the top tech skills that would make one successful, but I could also see educational programs revising themselves to stay relevant. What surprised me is how much “new collar” workers skew male. I wonder if we need to be taking an even more critical eye for why women are not pursuing these new opportunities.

  3. Hi Grace,
    Thanks for sharing the article and thoughts around the new wave of “new collar” jobs. I agree with the challenges you pointed out in assessing the quality of credentials thousands of non-degree holders acquire through Udacity, General Assembly, or CareerFoundry, but I think well-established companies will be able to gauge readiness of a candidate just like they do with degree-holding job seekers. Nevertheless, I am more concerned about smaller firms, which do not have well-established interview practices and HR functions — these may end up with many lemon employees instead of high-quality candidates. However, your article raised a bigger concern around the value of an expensive degree, say in data science or computer science, which takes years to acquire and arguably should equip graduates with more than just a technical skillset e.g., critical thinking, creativity, and judgement. Recognizing the fact that the job market is starved for technical and affordable talent today, many firms look for “shortcuts,” which can be costly long-term. I agree it will take time before we see the true value of a 100-hour long training on Python, JavaScript, or C++, but perhaps we need folks who can just code for hours on end and become good at it. I do wonder though, how this will impact employees who spent years earning their technical skillsets and credentialing it with a degree. We will need to wait and see…

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