Changing Collars

Tens of thousands of workers are quietly jumping from lower-wage roles to higher-skilled professional ones. Why smart firms are trying to help them do this quickly.

Jordan Waldron

Global Talent Acquisition Leader, RPO

It’s been a major story line of the Great Resignation: millions of low-wage workers quitting their jobs and refusing to take equivalent positions without significant upgrades in pay, benefits, and purpose.

But a smaller cadre of blue-collar workers has—often without any experience—jumped into tech-focused or other highly skilled roles, hoping to find better career prospects and more engaging jobs. Increasingly, companies are being pressed to help these candidates make the switch. “It’s driven by necessity to attract talent to show candidates a potential career path,” says Jordan Waldron, global talent acquisition leader in Korn Ferry’s Recruitment Process Outsourcing business.

In the fourth quarter of 2021, some 41,500 energy-extraction and construction workers moved into professional roles, according to an analysis of population data. A few thousand people in maintenance-related work made a similar transition. One recent survey showed that more than 10 percent of Americans in low-paying roles in warehouses, manufacturing, hospitality, and other hourly positions have switched to tech-focused roles during the pandemic.

It’s a development that helps address a critical shortage of people with tech skills—the same people experts predict businesses will sorely need in the coming years. For a sizable portion of the workforce, it also means a boost in pay. For instance, cleaning and maintenance jobs, which are staple roles for more than four million Americans, average less than $15 an hour. But computer-support positions, which are tech focused (even if they’re relatively low-level), average the equivalent of $30 an hour. They also offer a potential pathway into developer or coding jobs that pay much more.

Such transitions are not always easily made, but experts say smart firms are realizing they need to recruit and train candidates as quickly as possible. “You can create technical workshops or fund higher-education degrees through partnerships that can give people the skills to develop into the roles they want and the firm needs,” says Elise Freedman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of its Workforce Transformation practice.

Tech-focused job openings have appeared by the thousands in Utah, Arizona, Tennessee, Minnesota, and many other places that are far from Silicon Valley. Nor is it only tech-driven roles that are in demand. Many firms are desperately short of mid-level managers or employees with both technical and business acumen. In 2019 Amazon, partly in acknowledgment of its future workforce needs, announced a $700 million program to re-skill 100,000 of its US-based workers by 2025 in such areas as healthcare, machine learning, manufacturing, robotics, and computer science. The training, which could re-skill up to one-third of the company’s US-based employees, is voluntary and, in most instances, free.

Experts warn that some hourly workers may resist moving into professional roles for various reasons, including pay structure. Low-wage hourly workers often can make considerably more money working overtime shifts. The professional roles, while potentially offering more money further down the line, don’t pay overtime. “Right now, there are people on shop floors who don’t want to get into management,” Waldron says.

This pay issue could create headaches for the employer as well. A worker may want to learn new skills by taking on a more junior, lower-paying role in a different division of the firm. While the company’s talent strategists might be happy to maintain the employee’s compensation at the same level (so that switching doesn’t cost them any pay), the division manager might complain that the new recruit is making more than everyone else.