The New Collars embody these four key macrotrends.
Championing the blue-collar revolution
Amplifying the blue-collar labor shortage
Proving the potential of self-led upskilling
Adapting to the age of automation
New Collars are blue-collar workers who used the pandemic to learn new skills so that they could find better jobs. Their transcendence of single-collar careers is helping lead a labor revolution. While the entire world felt the effects of the coronavirus to some degree, the impacts were not equal. Many blue-collar workers lost jobs as the pandemic began. When working, they clocked hours in person—putting themselves and their loved ones at risk—while they watched white-collar employees migrate to safe remote setups, with their jobs and pay protected. Rather than accept this fate, many New Collars set their sights on new horizons. More optimistic, community-oriented, resilient, and risk-taking than the general population, they reinvented themselves. They learned new skills to get the compensation and flexibility they crave and deserve, and their hard work has started to pay off. Many are shifting to better jobs, creating an even tighter labor market as baby boomers also retire. Blue-collar work remains a crucial component of the global economy, and while wages are rising, employers must act swiftly to close the gap between job demand and workers available given the accelerating departures.
Even before the pandemic, many blue-collar jobs had evolved because of automation, digitization, and other technological trends that required upskilling and vocational courses. The jobs that remained strictly blue-collar were often low-paying and highly demanding, with difficult working conditions. Many included working alongside robots and AI, as the threat of further automation loomed. So, when the pandemic began and blue-collar workers were either furloughed en masse or forced to work long hours in the name of national security, workers were incensed. They saw that the pandemic was not just a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly but an omen, an opportunity to change their circumstances. Our data shows that this awakening was so pervasive that about three-quarters of pre-pandemic blue-collar workers upskilled in the hopes of finding better work. These ambitious New Collars are primarily millennial males who live and work in urban areas.
Our research shows that New Collars are flipping the pandemic script from one of desperation and stagnancy to hope and dynamism. They are dedicated to and capable of shaping a future where they feel fulfilled, secure, and appreciated, investing their money and their time in that promise.
“I don’t hate my job—I’d gladly stay if they’d let me work from home sometimes and gave me the raise I deserve.”
Though they are currently seeking new opportunities, a surprising 97% of New Collars now looking to shift would stay at their current job under the right conditions. But in order to keep them, there’s no one solution. A pay raise is an important step toward retention, but they are less concerned with pay than the general population. Our research shows that they care more about achieving greater flexibility and a better work-life balance relative to others, indicating that employers must consider their workers’ holistic needs, not just their hourly rates. It also shows that blue collar workers are looking to the white-collar pandemic experience of work from home, hybrid work, and general flexibility on the part of employers, and wondering when they will benefit from these gains too. A number also said a change of scenery, such as a promotion or new coworkers, could help retain them, though it was not a critical solution. There is opportunity here for employers if they can respond quickly enough and make meaningful changes that offer some of the same perks as white-collar jobs.
“Once I have my certificate in hand, I’ll find a job. I’ve seen it done, both on social media and in my circles. My former coworker did it.”
While others honed in on their need to feel safe, healthy, and calm, the New Collars allowed themselves to expand. They cited learning, self-expression, and spontaneity as having enhanced importance in their pandemic lives relative to their peers. They learned new skills as a legitimate method to improve their circumstances and didn’t take their approach lightly. The New Collars know how to take advantage of the plethora of online educational information. Very few returned to a traditional school for the skills and licensure they sought, but the vast majority still wanted to learn from a class format. Just as they are bucking traditional working conditions, they are bucking standard educational formats and charting their own, tailored course.
Certificates and licenses that would qualify them for white-collar work took precedence over soft skills and specific technical skills without any kind of verifiable credential. This approach indicates their high commitment to gaining upward mobility, especially since certificates and licenses often require an upfront investment. They are investing in themselves.
“I know automation poses a serious threat to a lot of industries. That’s a big part of why I want to make the jump to IT.”
Many blue-collar workers are concerned about AI upending their industries and threatening their livelihoods. No strangers to macroeconomic trends, New Collars seek fields they believe will be more stable in the face of mushrooming technology. Our research shows that the most popular industries they shift to are ones that have a clear place in the future: of the New Collars that have changed jobs, about one in four have gone to software, IT/data processing, and electronics manufacturing. Among the New Collars that have yet to switch roles, a similar one in four are looking to go into the same three industries. And New Collars generally feel good about their chances. A large majority are optimistic and feel they have the skills they need to make their desired job transitions. The New Collars want to claim their rightful place — in charge of determining the path of new technology, not beholden to it.
“I’m going to leave as soon as I can. And I’ve been spreading the word to the friends I work with that other opportunities exist.”
The majority of New Collars believe they have an excellent shot at a new career, that their resources are more than enough, and that they are the only ones standing in their way. Their optimism is founded in historical proof — 22% of New Collars already have transitioned to a new job and about half of those jobs are in traditionally white-collar fields. This means that a monumental global shift is underway: About one in 12 pre-Covid blue-collar workers have already shifted to white-collar work.
Yet there may be more to come. Of the portion of New Collars in white-collar work, three-quarters are satisfied with their roles. Only about half of those still in blue-collar work are satisfied, and most are anxiously looking to put that unhappiness behind them as nearly four in 10 are actively or passively searching for a new job on an expedited timeline. More than one-third want to leave their jobs within six months, and the vast majority plan to find a new role within one year. These trends are likely to intensify the labor shortage in the short term.
Though automation and AI may ultimately change many jobs, the need for blue-collar work is now more crucial than ever, as order books are six to 12 months deep, and demand for blue-collar labor in many developed countries outstrips demand for white-collar labor. But hope is not lost for organizations, as nearly all New Collars indicate that they have not closed the door on their old jobs. There is history, culture, and community in blue-collar work, and they are careful to evaluate their options before they depart. By listening to the New Collars and understanding what they want and need from an employer, firms can make current blue-collar work more viable while paving the way for a more stable workforce.
They are shaping the demand for products and services related to upskilling the future of blue-collar work.
While understanding the New Collars provides critical insights into navigating the blue-collar labor shortage, their consumption behaviors also have meaningful implications for organizations.
The New Collars are driving demand for:
- Effective certification and licensure. New Collars see credentials as the most secure, targeted, and efficient way to level up their job prospects. Accordingly, they pursue verified credentials most. The products they use seem to be successful, giving most New Collars heightened optimism about their job prospects. As more blue-collar workers seek to transition to better, more flexible, and higher-paying work, they seek out programs that give them credibility and the best chance to find new jobs.
- Government upskilling programs. Politicians have often touted retraining programs as a promising (if not necessary) way to revolutionize blue-collar work. This is especially true given the threat of climate change and the changes that it will necessitate in the labor force. However, retraining programs have primarily proven unsuccessful, with most insufficiently equipping participants with the skills they need to find work. New Collars may serve as an essential resource and playbook as governments (and politicians) seek to provide skills to their constituents.
- Task automation. Automation will be necessary not only to replace blue-collar workers that leave but also to retain them. Many companies will continue to struggle in finding blue-collar labor. Therefore, automation and efficiency are critical in bridging the gap and meeting demand. In addition, organizations may be able to leverage automation to improve rather than threaten the conditions of blue-collar work.
As the New Collars continue to accelerate the labor shortage:
- How will you attract the best of the highly motivated and change-making New Collars?
- In this brave new world, how can you shift your perspectives from "human vs machines" to "human and machines"?
- What will you do to advance and retain them within your organization more readily?