How HR Can Develop a New Generation of Blue-Collar Employees

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By the end of the recession, the U.S. labor market had shed
8.7 million jobs. In the nine years since, the economy has recovered all of
those lost jobs. But even with an unemployment rate last month of just 4.4
percent, not everyone is celebrating.  

“This is an unbelievably fragile, shallow economy.
Government economists say we’re at full employment, but labor participation
rates are low,” said Fred Goff, CEO of Jobcase, a Boston tech company that
provides a networking platform targeted to blue-collar occupations. “We
have dumbed down the definition of full employment,” said Goff, noting
that many of the new jobs are part time and don’t pay enough to lift people out
of poverty.

Goff isn’t alone in this assessment. “The quality of
the jobs being created is, on average, lower than those lost in the recession.
We need more companies to follow ‘high road’ business strategies that are both
financially successful for business owners and provide good career
opportunities for the workforce,” said Thomas Kochan, a business professor
at MIT and co-director of MIT’s Sloan Institute for Work and Employment
Research in Cambridge, Mass., Kochan is the author of Shaping the
Future of Work
 (Business Expert Press, 2016).

In a tightening labor market, Kochan says that businesses
need to view labor as an asset to be managed rather than as a cost to be
controlled. His MIT colleague Zeynep Ton reached the same conclusion while
researching operational inefficiencies in the retail and service sectors. 

“Too many existing jobs are simply bad jobs,” said
Ton, author of The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies
Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits
Publishing/New Harvest, 2014). A bad job is defined as one that pays poorly,
has unpredictable hours and leaves the employee feeling unappreciated, said
Ton. Companies with “good job strategies” pay higher wages, invest in
training (including cross-training) and provide opportunities for career

Ton argues that when employees are treated with respect,
they are likely to work harder and better and be more loyal. She suggests that
employers empower their front-line employees by soliciting feedback about their
experiences and giving them the opportunity to “have a voice” through
recommendations for improvements.

That’s the strategy embraced at QuikTrip Corp., a
convenience store and gas station chain headquartered in Tulsa, Okla., where
entry-level workers are paid more than minimum wage, receive two weeks of
training and are encouraged to apply for promotions. Stores subsequently run
more efficiently, provide better customer service and have increased sales.

“So often people are asking the wrong questions,”
said Goff. “They are worried about getting hires in the door, but the
bigger issue is keeping people employed.”

The MIT professors agree that creating programs to train
unskilled and low-skilled workers is an effective recruitment and retention
strategy. Not only does it improve performance and employee engagement, it also
creates a culture of learning and achievement. 

A company that invests in training its lower-skilled workers
sends the message to existing front-line employees that an entry-level job can
be a steppingstone to a better work life and a more prosperous future, they
say. In addition, it tells prospective hires that the company is willing to
offer real opportunities for growth, which encourages labor force dropouts to
become productive, contributing employees.

Many lower-skilled women with caretaking responsibilities
also are absent from the labor market, largely because they can’t afford the
high costs of child care and transportation. Beyond the practical
considerations of pay and benefits, companies with family-friendly policies and
cultures incentivize working parents to apply for jobs by offering flexible
work arrangements and work/life balance.

Addressing the Middle-Skills Gap

Beyond entry level, there’s a critical need for skilled
labor in many traditional industries. By the end of the decade, over 40 percent
of new positions will be in “middle skills” jobs that require more
than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree, according
to Josh Davies, CEO of The Center for Work Ethic Development in Denver.

“Middle skills are eroding because firms have given up
on training. They expect to be able to buy these skills on the market,”
said Kochan. “We need to train people for the jobs of the future and pay
them fairly for the new skills they are acquiring.”

“This isn’t just a numbers game,” said Steven
Lindner, a talent acquisition and talent development partner with The WorkPlace
Group in the New York city area. “Many occupations no longer attract
enough qualified candidates."   

Apprenticeships are increasingly seen as a vehicle to bridge
the middle-skills gap. The most successful programs integrate classroom
instruction with on-the-job training.  

When recruiters at Mubea North America, a manufacturing
company in Northern Kentucky, realized there weren’t enough qualified
applicants for their open positions, they created apprenticeship programs in
four skilled trades: industrial maintenance, machinists, mechatronics, and tool
and die. Their goal is to hire 12 apprentices each year, with each program
lasting three to five years. 

Each apprentice earns a degree (at a local community
college) and is paid while training. Upon completion, apprentices can choose to
continue working for the company or move on, though most in the past have
chosen to stay because they have developed relationships with peers and
mentors, are well-prepared to do the work, and are guaranteed a well-paying

Kochan recommends that companies reinforce such commitment
by creating career pathways for these middle-skills employees so that they can
continue to grow their talents and increase their income.

A nationwide apprenticeship program jointly launched by the
National Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation and the American Hotel
and Lodging Association trains entry-level workers to become managers and is
designed to be a career launching pad. Participating employers have found that
investing in apprenticeships reduced turnover, improved productivity and
enhanced job satisfaction, with 91 percent of apprentices still employed with
their initial company after completing the program.

Changing of the Generational Guard

A Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce survey
predicts that retiring Baby Boomers will leave 55 million jobs open by 2020. At
the other end of the generational spectrum, Millennials are expected to
comprise nearly half of the labor force in the next three years.   

"Baby Boomers are retiring fast, and we aren’t training
enough youth to take over their jobs,” said Joe Lamacchia, author of Blue
Collar and Proud of It
 (Health Communications, 2009). Lamacchia, who
is the founder of a successful landscaping and driveway paving business in the
Boston area, laments the growing pressure on high school students to go to
college, even when it’s not necessarily right for them. To help remedy that
problem, Lamacchia made it his personal mission to travel the country educating
young people (and their parents) about the value of blue-collar work.

“There’s often a bias against blue-collar work,”
said Janice Urbanik, executive director of Partners for a Competitive Workforce
in Cincinnati. “There are a lot of outdated ideas about what these jobs

Urbanik encourages employers to reach out to high school
students, teachers, counselors and parents to address myths and stereotypes
around traditional blue-collar industries. People who think construction or
manufacturing are “too dirty” may not realize how high-tech these
industries have become or the types of opportunities they afford.

Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Colorado-based Intertech Plastics,
founded CareerWise, the country’s first statewide youth apprenticeship program,
as a way to link high school students to industries and address manufacturers’
demand for skills. Because manufacturers are facing critical shortages of
skilled labor, they want to teach teens how to work for them, he

The program offers high school juniors and seniors the
chance to spend three school days a week as apprentices, while earning
classroom credit and a paycheck. After graduation, apprentices are offered
full-time jobs and financial support towards community college degrees

Colorado leaders are hopeful that these innovative training
programs will help them create a sustainable workplace for the future.

Eliminate ‘Purple Squirrels’

The “purple squirrel” is a metaphor used by
recruiters to describe unrealistic and overly specific hiring specifications.
Practically speaking, there’s no such thing as a purple squirrel, either in
nature or the job market.  

Lindner advises employers to adjust their recruitment
strategies to better reflect market conditions. 

“Managers who are more open to training and developing
candidates for work-related tasks can provide a real edge in attracting
talent,” he said.

To that end, HR can help craft job descriptions that more
accurately reflect position requirements. For example, many employers
arbitrarily require college degrees for routine administrative and customer
service jobs and, in the process, weed out viable candidates who can easily
do—or be taught to do—the work.

While it’s safer to look for candidates who have the exact
experience and education that the position requires, many candidates have
transferrable skills that they acquired in different industries and roles.
Although some may not have a degree, they may have obtained certifications or
participated in training to gain relevant knowledge. 

“Don’t focus solely on what they’ve done in the
past,” said Lindner. “Look at what they can learn and what they can
be trained to do.”

Some of the best hires are hiding in plain sight, he added.
Millions of people are part of the gig economy. During the recession, they
worked temporary jobs or sought out contract and freelance assignments as a way
to earn money. Other workers had their hours reduced because employers needed
to cut costs. Now that the economy has improved, these employees often seek
more stable, full-time employment. 

Forward-thinking employers are evolving creative sourcing
strategies, investing in continuous training (at all levels) and providing
career pathways. These are not just passing fads, said Kochan. Rather, they
represent a new social contract between progressive employers and the workforce
they depend upon for success.

At Converge
HR Solutions, we offer full service recruiting for a variety of industries and
positions.  We can assess positions to be
filled and develop job descriptions to find the perfect qualified employee for
the desired position in your business.
This specific service can facilitate elimination of the “purple
squirrels” discussed above. For more information about the process of our
recruitment service, or any of our other services in general, visit our
website at
or email us directly at or
give us a call at 610-296-8550.


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