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How gray-collar workers can solve your hiring shortage

Posted by Grace Townsley

December 27, 2021    |     4-minute read (629 words)

United States companies are facing an unprecedented hiring shortage. In September 2021 alone, 4.4 million people left their job. That’s a record 3% of all U.S. workers. The hardest hit industries? Those with essential frontline workers, including hospitality, retail, manufacturing and health services. 

At this pace, some companies are having to replace entire teams every few months. The costs are staggering, and the erosion of skills and company experience is crippling. 

In this high-turnover environment, how can companies replace and retain talent? One solution is by tapping into the enormous pool of gray-collar workers.

Don’t overlook this qualified talent

Gray-collar” workers are those that work in a job that combines both blue- and white-collar skills. Their jobs usually include some level of manual labor alongside a specific set of technical skills. These workers often have an associate degree or special certification, but not a 4-year degree. They don’t usually have an office, and their role may require a uniform. 

Firefighters, paralegals, police officers, non-physician healthcare professionals, child care professionals, and retail and food service workers all fall into the gray-collar category. In fact, these middle-skilled jobs comprise the majority of the labor market. As every job is becoming more reliant on technology, the number of gray-collar jobs increases every year. 

Because gray-collar jobs are both physical and technical, they’re nearly impossible to fully automate. That means businesses need gray-collar workers now, more than ever. And that need won’t go away any time soon.

How can businesses desperate for skilled, reliable employees tap into the growing pool of gray-collar talent?

  1. Reconsider your degree requirements
Only one-third of adult workers hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet, an increasing number of middle-skill jobs require higher education. Gray-collar workers are often overlooked because of degree inflation. While a large portion of workers currently employed in gray collar jobs don’t have a bachelor’s degree, new hires are now expected to. 

These growing degree requirements exclude a huge group of workers who have all the skills and job experience needed to excel in the job, just not the diploma. Unless companies lower their education requirements, these middle-skill jobs will be increasingly difficult to fill. 

  1. Give gray-collar workers fair treatment and recognition
While many of these workers don’t hold a bachelor’s degree, they still bring valuable skills and experience to critical positions within the company. Their positions should be structured, recognized and rewarded as such. Giving these workers access to benefits, hybrid work schedules and greater flexibility like the higher-level full-time positions receive will help retain talent at this essential level. 

  1. They’re willing to learn, are you willing to train?
Many gray-collar workers are willing to learn the technology skills needed to step into a more specialized role. While white-collar workers with advanced degrees may have learned these computer skills in school, by teaching them to gray-collar workers, companies have the advantage of imparting good habits and company culture throughout the training. Plus, training programs improve worker loyalty and ensure the skills are fresh.  

Apprenticeship programs are becoming more popular among big companies like Costco, Apple, Google and IBM. These companies are able to train their employees through hands-on real world scenarios, making those workers even more prepared and skilled than a more qualified hire. 

If hiring practices can change, the Great Recession will become a thing of the past

Over 4.2 million people have been looking for work for over six months. The valuable employees that companies are desperately looking for are out there. But to reach them, businesses must rethink how they find qualified talent, structure their essential positions, and train their staff. While technical skills can be taught on the job, soft skills and experience are irreplaceable.    

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