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Evolving world of work sparks a call for ‘new collar’ workers

No one denies the world of work isn’t what it used to be. Employers and employees alike struggle to keep up with the dizzying pace of change shaking up an array of industries. With technological advances and changing economics creating opportunity for some while leaving others behind, “skills gap” has become a term recruiters understand all too well.

All the disruption is leading employers and policymakers to explore a range of solutions, including new thinking about the kind of workers employers need. Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO of IBM, has spoken recently of the importance of recognizing new labor market dynamics. In a column for USA Today in December, she said, “This is not about white collar vs. blue collar jobs, but about the ‘new collar’ jobs that employers in many industries demand, but which remain largely unfilled.”

Rometty said the challenge extends beyond her industry. “As industries from manufacturing to agriculture are reshaped by data science and cloud computing, jobs are being created that demand new skills—which in turn requires new approaches to education, training and recruiting,” she wrote.

The surprising thing, Rometty says, is that many of the positions employers need now don’t require four-year college degrees, and she advocates partnerships with community colleges as well as other educational institutions as one way to prepare workers for the jobs in demand today and in the future.

Role of community colleges
A community college in North Carolina provides just one example of how such institutions are at the forefront of training the new kind of worker. “We’re seeing that in a number of areas, in particular in jobs in advanced manufacturing … what’s referred to as digital manufacturing,” Gary M. Green, president of Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says.

Jobs such as welding and machining once were filled by workers who developed their skills in a high school shop class or through on-the-job training, but now those jobs require higher level skills, particularly math and technology, Green says.

Welding jobs provide an example of how skill requirements have changed. “Employers are wanting not just training in typical manual welding, but robotic welding as well,” Green says, and the same is true with machining. Those jobs require a strong background in math and IT skills so that workers can operate and troubleshoot the machines. “Our students are preparing for those careers.”

Green says more and more employers are looking to community colleges for the training they need, and the students his school trains find themselves in demand. “Employers are increasingly engaging earlier in the workforce supply chain in order to get the skills that they need,” he says. In fact, he’s seeing employers hiring students early before they even finish a program. Employers are looking for “skills and competencies and work ethic,” so they often snap up students before they’ve completed a degree. “Employers will hire people and then in best cases support them in finishing their degree,” he says.

All manner of employers are partnering with community colleges to train the kind of workers they need. For example, in addition to training the new breed of manufacturing workers, Green says his school has developed strong relationships with the National Security Agency to help fill the critical need for cyber security professionals.

Dealing with the mismatch
Even as employers partner with community colleges/technical schools, the challenge to secure a qualified workforce remains. Employers may find themselves laying off and recruiting at the same time, as certain skills go obsolete and others are hard to find.

“Employers are struggling with the mismatch between the skills that their current workforce has and the skills required by increasing technology in the workplace,” Green says. Community colleges can help employers upgrade the skillset of their workplace, but in some cases an employee base may not have the background to pick up the new skills the employer needs, math for example.

“The idea of the skills gap is very real on the ground in a lot of communities,” Green says. He does see progress in narrowing the gap, but the kinds of educational programs employers need require large investments in technology and equipment. Plus they require employment of high-cost faculty and staff who have high-level technical skills. Given the way community colleges are generally funded, raising money for needed programs is hard to do, he says.

So having the capacity to produce enough in-demand workers—“nurses, machinists, IT technicians, and the like”—is a challenge for community colleges probably in every state, Green says.

“The workforce is in transition right now,” Green says. The future is likely to see fewer people in many production facilities, but the workers that are there are likely to earn more. He sees employer-community college partnerships creating good-paying jobs, “jobs that are career building,” but the downside is that there may not be as many jobs created as are being lost.

Advice for HR
Green’s suggestion for employers is to carefully analyze the job skills and competencies they need and then make sure they actually hire to those skills. While he would never argue against getting a four-year degree, “a bachelor’s degree is not necessarily a good proxy for a good work ethic or work skills.” Instead, hands-on technical training might be more valuable.

Green urges human resources professionals tasked with acquiring a qualified workforce to look to training programs in their local area. “Engage with community colleges and universities where you need to acquire your workforce.” He also says to engage early. Instead of waiting for graduation, he wants to see employers looking to work-based learning, internships, apprenticeships, and co-op programs in order to develop the workforce they need.