Staffing Management

A blueprint for rebuilding the nation’s blue collar workforce

By Mark Allen

Mar. 12, 2020

The U.S. blue collar labor force is at a crossroads. warehouse workers, hourly employees, blue collar workers

Baby boomers are retiring in droves and will continue to do so (an average of 10,000 people will turn 74 in the U.S. every day for the next 18 years) and traditional skill sets are evolving from entirely human labor to robot-assisted human labor. 

Meanwhile, there are more open jobs than job seekers. While many people think that the proliferation of artificial intelligence and automation has replaced the need for blue collar workers, in fact the opposite is true: The U.S. is facing a blue collar labor and skills shortage.

 According to an article in the New York Times, “While A.I. technology directly threatens existing retail jobs, its downstream impact has created new jobs as well. This is because — at least for now — the ‘last mile’ of online retail still requires a human touch. As it turns out, retail job losses since 2014 have been almost exactly counterbalanced by a gain of 118,000 light-truck or delivery-service driver jobs. 

“The number of heavy-truck and tractor-trailer drivers increased more than 175,000 over the same period, making these two driving jobs among the fastest-growing occupations in the United States.”

Despite these job opportunities there is a severe shortage of blue collar workers that is only projected to get worse over time and will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the nation’s economy. A report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute examined the workforce shortage and found that “between 2018 and 2028, there could be as many as 2.4 million unfilled manufacturing jobs. This shortage ‘could put $454 billion of U.S. manufacturing GDP at risk in 2028 alone.’ ”

 When looking at U.S. labor shortages the Conference Board found that “a decline in the supply of blue collar and manual services workers would not have been a problem if the demand for them was shrinking as well. But this is not the case. The demand for these workers continues to grow, partly due to the unprecedented slowdown in labor productivity in the past decade.”

With unemployment at an all-time low, government leaders need to ensure policies are in place to build a skilled labor pool to meet both current and future workforce needs. At the same time, employers need to take a more strategic approach to workforce development which involves planning for a multiyear time horizon — typically three to five years — the same as an organization’s strategic plan. This planning needs to be account for both capacity and capabilities to ensure there are the right number of workers with the right skills.

Change the narrative around blue collar jobs. This starts by removing the stigma of blue collar jobs by raising the awareness of the contributions that the manufacturing, trucking and other sectors provide for our economy. It also means highlighting the diverse skill sets that fall under the blue collar umbrella and that many blue collar jobs in fact pay six figures.

Provide opportunities for current blue collar workers to develop additional skills. The report from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute found that “manufacturing executives stated the top five skill sets that could increase significantly in the coming three years due to the influx of automation and advanced technologies are: technology/computer skills, digital skills, programming skills for robots/ automation, working with tools and technology, and critical thinking skills.”

In order for employers to ensure that they have an appropriately skilled workforce they should partner with academic institutions to provide graduate business education courses onsite or tuition reimbursement for employees to take classes online, at night or on the weekends that teach technology, business management and critical thinking skills that are needed.

Increase investment in trade-skills training. Fortunately, there are state and federal efforts underway to increase funding for career technical education; California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed giving $83.2 million to community colleges to create and develop apprenticeship programs and President Donald Trump has proposed a $900 million increase in career and technical education. This renewed interest in trade skills training is encouraging and it is essential that this funding is sustained, both by government entities and private industry.

Blue collar jobs are one of the pillars of a nation’s economy. As we look ahead, it is critical that public policies, training programs and workforce plans are put into place to build a competitive workforce that can integrate emerging technologies with the ever-growing need for human labor.

Mark Allen is practitioner faculty of organizational theory and management at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School and academic director of the master of science in human resources. He is the author of “Aha Moments in Talent Management,” “The Corporate University Handbook” and “The Next Generation of Corporate Universities.”

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