We all fixate on the vast changes in knowledge work, but an equally profound set of changes continues in what most of us call blue-collar work. So, while some turn their noses up at getting their hands dirty, the rise of the machines could actually be good news for those that choose a different career for work. In fact, we at Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work actually think a renaissance of blue-collar work is on the cards, delivering jobs and wealth for communities across the Western world, and we have the data and arguments to prove this, in my latest research The Renaissance of Blue-Collar Work.
Why are we investigating blue collar work? Well, look around and you’ll see that blue-collar work isn’t what it used to be. The plethora of construction projects taking place in London, Paris or Berlin right now involves digital hubs connecting and empowering construction workers and tradesmen through intelligent workflows and synchronized tasks and activities. Then go and walk around the latest state-of-the-art factory floor and watch how people work, with production lines and workflows festooned with sensors and algorithms, sequencing intricate hand-offs between teams of people and banks of machines. In these traditionally manual-labour-heavy environments, newly empowered workers don’t just carry out routine, physical tasks anymore– sometimes referred to as procedural work. Armed with the ability to exploit data, analytics or machine learning, they’re equipped to add value in new and innovative ways, using human insight and judgment to master sophisticated technical process work with skill, dexterity and flair. The quality of work done continues to improve.
My take is firms will always value employees that possess stamina, resilience, and dexterity. However, employees that undertake physical tasks will increasingly see their brains stimulated as well as their hands. Production workers won’t just be automatons on the production line, but they’ll be computer programmers, machinists, quality controllers and engineers all rolled into one. Given license to think, act and do, these workers will be highly sought-after value creators raising productivity and valued for their creative problem-solving abilities. They will, in fact, be the 21st century’s craftsmen, mastering augmented tasks with skill, dexterity and flair. You might think this is hyperbole, but I am convinced this is the case and its why I made the call that a renaissance of blue-collar work is now underway.
There is a big but in all of this however. The nagging doubt I have after working through the survey data and interview transcripts is this: the renaissance could be over before it really picks up speed. My study found that less than half of the respondents are making the necessary changes to their workforce strategies to realize the full value as machines augment work. Moreover, there’s a stunning lack of urgency to map out future skills and roles or to craft new performance metrics, or forge career paths that encourage the best workers to stick around. The perennial war for talent for the best, and even the good and middling is going to get tougher. This matters because failing to deploy a fully trained augmented workforce will forfeit a whopping 14% productivity bonus (according to my calculations) that is on offer over the next five years, fatally undermining future competitive performance.
There were a couple of bigger questions that I set out to address in the research: Is there a need for a new industrial and management orthodoxy for blue-collar work in the 21st century as new technologies and expectations around work continue to shift? So when employees work much more autonomously, self-organizing etc., and work becomes highly configurable, customizable etc, as the era of mass standardization comes to an end...what does it mean to manage a blue-collar workforce? The other is more existential about this type of work: For too long commentators seemed to only view knowledge work as delivering sustainable growth, but I think the story is more nuanced than that. Based on our analysis, I wonder if towns and cities across Europe could start generating jobs and wealth for their communities with work that blends traditional blue and white-collar tasks together. And if this is the case, could we potentially witness a renaissance of the working class as repetitive, rote work disappears, and work becomes self-organized and directed and the rise of skilled craftsmen/craftswomen reappears? So, rather than simply outsource East for cheap labour, leaders could begin to relocating work to where the skills exist to boost productivity and margin. Keen to hear your thoughts. More on this later.