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Perspectives

Getting the Most from Augmented Blue-Collar Workers

2020-01-16


Technology is ushering in a renaissance in blue-collar work. What was once dismissed as “widget work” now requires highly skilled employees — who are in high demand. Our research shows that to leverage the shift, businesses must accelerate changes to their workforce strategies.

Blue-collar work isn’t what it used to be. Look at some of today’s construction sites, where digital hubs connect and empower construction workers and tradesmen through intelligent workflows and synchronized tasks and activities. Or consider state-of-the-art factory floors festooned with sensors and algorithms sequencing intricate hand-offs between teams of people and banks of machines.

In these traditionally manual-labor-heavy environments, newly empowered workers don’t just carry out routine, physical tasks – 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.

There’s a risk that this renaissance in blue-collar work could be over before it really picks up speed. In a recent study with Oxford Economics, we found that fewer than half of respondents are making the changes necessary to realize the full value from these new roles. 

Our research charted the accelerated changes in blue-collar work and explored how workforce strategies should adapt to the structural changes. In addition to a quantitative survey, we conducted one-to-one interviews with leaders and their employees. To learn more (including the study’s full methodology), see our white paper, “The Renaissance of Blue-Collar Work.”

Attracting and making the best use of a new generation of workers

After conducting our survey and interviews, here are the measures that we concluded will help businesses upskill the workforce and attract talent into the new tech-enabled blue-collar roles.

Evolve performance metrics and wage models

Given the right tools and empowerment, respondents expect a professional and technical workforce to be greater contributors to their business’s success. Mirroring these changes, 62% of respondents are set to leverage a broader range of performance metrics. This is the top area in which we see businesses taking action to embrace needed changes. 

Rather than focusing reward systems solely on production volume and production margin, respondents plan to align pay with improvements in customer satisfaction ratings (such as net promoter scores), work speed (i.e., process throughput) and supply chain efficiencies (key performance indicators on inventory cycles, for example).

Most respondents also expect to see better rates of pay for professional/technical roles, followed by skilled trades, skilled operations and unskilled workers. The question of wage is the elephant in the room for many categories of blue-collar work, but our study suggests that change is coming, especially as businesses face a talent shortage in both unskilled and higher skilled areas of blue-collar work. Businesses will need to incorporate these wage shifts into their expectations on profit margins.

Reform recruitment strategies

Most of our survey respondents also plan to change their approach to recruitment ­to attract workers considered future “value generators.” This finding highlights these workers’ perceived value to organizations, with 70% of respondents believing that job descriptions will need updating to attract these workers. Efforts for unskilled workers aren’t on the same scale; even though 67% of respondents expect shortages of unskilled workers by 2025, only 42% of respondents suggest that job descriptions will need to be updated to fill these open roles.

Note that there may be a perception gap among job seekers that will slow companies’ efforts to attract and retain workers. In addition to the skills gap slowing productivity for manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe, there are other reasons why younger workers ma­y not be drawn to these types of positions. Recent grads may not consider a career in an industrial company as one worth pursuing, believing these jobs are repetitive and widget-based work, taking place in uncomfortable conditions, rather than at the leading edge where automation meets robotics, digitization and people. 

Moreover, closing the gender gap and reshaping how people think about blue-collar jobs and careers are urgent priorities. Businesses must do more to promote their potential careers as high-tech, highly skilled and higher paying.

Reboot the career model

Leaders are also rethinking the career model for their blue-collar workers (see Figure 1). Longer-term career planning and different career progression are in the spotlight, with 60% of respondents expecting highly skilled workers to be given more flexibility and job mobility. On the flip side, businesses will need to reconstruct career models to provide continuous development opportunities and foster a growth mindset among employees. (For more on this topic, read our white paper, “Cycling Through the 21st Century Career: Putting Learning in Its Rightful Place.”)

Figure 1

This career development-oriented view of the augmented blue-collar workforce represents a change in perspective. There is now a pressing skills gap evident for highly skilled, digitally literate workers, and career paths need to feed these employees into the business. This new focus means providing the workforce with the skills to learn continuously and the ability to improve on the job.

In fact, internal job mobility looks to be a big part of the future career path for tomorrow’s blue-collar worker. Employers will need to provide substantial learning opportunities so that workers can quickly move, if needed, to a different position or be redeployed to another team.

Recommendations

There is a growing need for highly skilled blue-collar employees. New workforce management strategies are needed to shift the workforce in preparation for digitally enabled blue-collar work. Here are our recommendations for getting the most value from these workers:

  • View augmented employees as your value generators and reward them accordingly. Businesses should identify and nourish a superset of tech-savvy workers and style them as workplace dynamos, boosting efficiency and productivity. Given license to think, act and do, these workers are the organization’s next-generation craftspeople, applying digital know-how to technical process work with impact. These employees will need to work fast, multi-task, possess both soft and hard skills, and be highly collaborative. Because they are difficult to find, train and retain, there must be a strong link between performance and reward.

  • Move from roles to skills. As machines do more and processes are digitized, people clearly need different skills to excel. Employers need their workforce to be flexible, agile and digitally literate. This new way of working, in which skilled employees multi-task and move in and out of teams with some frequency, requires a shift in focus from roles to skills.

  • Turn newly minted craftspeople into knowledge brokers. Knowledge capture is necessary to ensure that unique process/digital/technical insight gets coded and shared. Turn your best craftspeople into knowledge brokers, having conversations across the organization and knowing who’s working on what at any given time. Brokers can then use this insight to share best practices across the organization—and can benefit from the reputation they develop.

  • Build an in-house corporate university. More than 50 years ago, General Electric and McDonald’s founded internal universities for employees. Since then, Apple, Facebook, General Motors, Google, Twitter and others have followed suit. In these in-house education programs, the curriculum can be applied in specific scenarios by the organization.

  • Tread between short- and long-term corporate interests. The renaissance in blue-collar work means higher rates of pay for enabled workers and higher rates of productivity for firms. The trade-off between short-term profitability (higher rewards hitting the bottom line) and long-term productivity benefits demand careful calibration. Marshal your evidence and present to the CFO, or the budget holder, why you need the money and talent to develop your next-generation workforce.

For too long, businesses believed only knowledge work would deliver sustainable growth and career opportunities. The story is, in fact, more nuanced. The people doing procedural work could be future workplace dynamos, powering productivity, profits and results. Moreover, they will be paid more for doing so.

Given the right tools, technologies and skills, procedural workers can add value to the bottom line. They are set to be the 21st century craftspeople of the modern technological age, fusing blue- and white-collar tasks together, valued for their unrivaled technical dexterity and digital insight. 

For more information, read our whitepaper The Renaissance of Blue-Collar Work. To learn more, visit the Center for the Future of Work section of our website or contact us.

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Getting the Most from Augmented Blue-Collar Workers