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Why ‘gray-collar’ workers may just be the answer to your post-pandemic hiring woes

They’re the pool between white- and blue-collar workers who, with a little investment, could help fill those Great Resignation vacancies, this HR veteran says.

Why ‘gray-collar’ workers may just be the answer to your post-pandemic hiring woes
[Photo: RichLegg/Getty Images]

The combined forces of the pandemic, the Great Resignation, and widespread hiring challenges have forced a long-overdue reset in how we talk about the workforce. Employees have become important stakeholders as organizations struggle to fill staffing shortages, retain burned out employees, and cater to new expectations around remote work. But workplace conversations still fall short by splitting the population into two categories—white-collar and blue-collar—while overlooking so-called “gray-collar” workers altogether. 

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Gray-collar workers are a crucial subset of the workforce that exist at the intersection of technology and service roles. They use both physical and technical skills in their jobs and often fall into the essential worker category, including a multitude of healthcare professionals, teachers, firefighters, government workers, and police officers. These individuals have kept the economy running and put their health on the line throughout the pandemic, yet their needs are being overlooked within current conversations about the future of work. 

Meanwhile, organizations across healthcare, education, and law enforcement face particularly urgent staffing shortages. In order to ease hiring challenges and future-proof the workforce, organizations must recognize the unique needs of gray-collar workers and make changes to address them. Here are a few important places to start.

Give Gray-Collar Jobs The Respect They Deserve

An important step in hiring and retaining gray-collar workers is to value and rebrand these critical positions. These workers helped get us through the pandemic and should be regarded with the respect and recognition they deserve. Their roles are highly specialized and require a command of modern technologies, yet have been underpaid and underappreciated even throughout the pandemic. The problem lies in the false perception that individuals in these jobs are easily replaceable. That is not the case.

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Organizations must rethink job descriptions, pay, and benefits to both recognize current gray-collar workers and encourage young workers to become interested in these roles. Organizations that rely on these positions have been slow to adopt flexible workplace processes like remote or partial hybrid work options for training and meetings, which would provide gray-collar workers with more agency even when working on the frontlines. Attracting these sought-after individuals will require rethinking appropriate and relevant benefits like flexibility, autonomy, and increased compensation wherever possible. 

Rethink Degree Requirements for These Roles

Only one-third of the adult workforce has a bachelor’s degree. Yet many organizations are requiring four-year degrees for positions that years ago did not require them. This so-called “degree inflation” has contributed to the talent shortage and hiring challenges facing numerous industries. In fact, researchers estimate that 6.2 million jobs are currently at risk of degree inflation, creating a talent shortage that could reach 8.5 million people and $8.5 trillion in unrealized annual revenues by 2030.

Industries employing gray-collar workers have a unique chance to both ease hiring challenges and create opportunities for a wider set of individuals by rethinking degree requirements. Gray-collar workers are skilled professionals, many of whom have completed two or more years of school to obtain an associate’s degree or specialized certification. Their roles also often require significant amounts of on-the-job training. By investing in training and onboarding rather than in recruiting efforts, organizations can attract talented, high-potential candidates that may not have a four-year degree for any number of reasons irrelevant to their potential at work. Not only will this expand the available pool of candidates, it can help to address long-standing inequities and biases within the hiring process.

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Invest in Reskilling to Grow the Talent Pool 

Another way to expand the gray-collar talent pool and prepare current employees for changing job demands is to invest in reskilling programs. The pandemic and shift to remote work have accelerated the digitization of many roles, including gray-collar positions like healthcare, education, and government service. Meanwhile, 94% of business leaders say they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job, a sharp uptick from 65% in 2018. But organizations must support their workers and guide them through reskilling. It is unreasonable to expect employees—and even potential employees—to reskill on their own time and dollar. 

Apprenticeships are becoming a popular way for employers to create their own workforce by offering training and certification programs. Companies like Apple, Google, Costco, and IBM have removed degree requirements and developed programs that allow individuals to develop job skills through certification and apprenticeship programs. These programs provide training on a range of skills that are easier to teach and learn in hands-on scenarios rather than in a college classroom.

By the end of 2020, IBM will have trained more than 1,000 apprentices and hired the majority of them. Crucially, its average apprenticeship salary is around 50% higher than the average local income where those individuals are working. 

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It’s Time to Address the Gray-Collar Blind Spot

Talent strategies and future-of-work conversations that continue to bisect the workforce into only two categories are missing the mark. An answer to the current hiring landscape can only come when organizations address the gray-collar blind spot. These workers are a valuable source of talent hidden in plain sight, and the pandemic has placed a long-overdue spotlight on them. Organizations have much to gain by giving gray-collar workers the respect they deserve, rethinking who is qualified to fill these positions, and making investments to further grow this workforce. 


Cecile Alper-Leroux, a 20+-year HR tech veteran, is UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group) group vice president of research and innovation. She writes and speaks extensively on the changing nature of work, people, and technology in the workplace.


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