A rising gray-collar workforce, upskilling and new leadership ethics are among the key trends that should be on the radar of forward-thinking HR leaders.
While today’s HR leaders are working hard right now to address the Great Resignation, vaccine policies and return-to-office plans, the coming three to 15 years will see the rise of a more technically skilled portion of the workforce that could replace the traditional blue-collar worker, experts say. These so-called gray-collar employees often will have a college degree and will be more likely to oversee technical roles but not while working at a desk in an office.
And there will be more of them in the next decade. According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, 13 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations will be categorized as gray-collar roles.
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Where is this new workforce coming from? These formerly blue-collar roles have evolved in the wake of cloud computing, machine learning, robotics and digitization.
“A lot of traditional blue-collar work has been so deeply impacted by rapid digitalization that their jobs have changed significantly. [Even] the simple factory work has now changed that—these same employees are now managing robotics and AI,” Karina Monesson, senior manager of human insights for UKG, said during a panel session at the recent UKG Connections conference in Las Vegas.
“They’re still working in the same industry, but their jobs have changed so dramatically that they are now very highly skilled individuals who cannot be trained in a day or a week,” she added.
In terms of HR leaders’ challenge du jour, that is to say, the Great Resignation, employees are leaving jobs for better work-life balance and more opportunities to learn and advance in their careers. The IBM Institute of Business Value found that while 51% of respondents said they are considering leaving jobs in search of improved work-life balance, 43% and 36% are leaving for career advancement and continuous learning, respectively.
But HR leaders must be aware that workers who remain also are not content with the status quo. “Even if workers stay, they have demands,” said Dr. Jarik Conrad, vice president of human insights for UKG.
Employees know they have the upper hand, he said, citing the 178 strikes that took place in the United States this year. “It’s as if labor is taking advantage of the current situation because they are willing to leave,” he said.
Conrad said that providing new skill learning and degrees can help organizations and their employees in the future. For example, 375 million employees will require new skills and the degree gap—the disparity between college and non-college graduates—is growing, he warned.
Organizations should start to employ the thinking and practices used in apprenticeship programs and the gig economy. “We hear a lot about gig jobs and people. How about creating that very gig economy within your organization?” he said. “If the grass is sometimes greener in other places, create different pastures with grants and entrepreneurship.”
And if an employee leaves to start their own firm, it doesn’t mean they won’t come back. “Down the line, that employee might be a vendor for that employer,” says Conrad.
As employees need to re-educate and train for the future, so too must the corner office. Business leaders, in fact, are facing more ethical dilemmas than ever, said Monesson, citing car manufacturers as an example. Many are working on autonomous vehicles and writing code to determine what a car should do seconds before a predicted crash.
“The new ethics of leadership means that companies must determine if they have a reactive leadership or an ethical one,” said Monesson, and added that organizations need to build a trust-based workplace, require ethical leadership behavior and develop outcomes-based leadership.
Part of this is trusting that your employees are working without spying on them during their workday, she says. “Surveillance tools that monitor every employee’s mouse click and take pictures of them as they use a company laptop are eroding trusts,” said Monesson. “They are a violation.”
“Employees want more transparency than employers are providing. If people are not being honest you will not trust them,” she said. “This is the basis of human relationships.”