Attracting a new age of workers to blue-collar jobs is top of mind for many industries, particularly as baby boomers retire and the interest of younger generations in trade and blue-collar jobs wanes. In fact, skilled trade jobs have become the most difficult positions for employers to fill.
As millennials and Generation Z face the daunting cost of college education and questions about the investment’s ROI, blue-collar and skilled-labor fields have a developing opportunity to attract workers. As Mike Rowe, former host of Dirty Jobs, has said, “We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist.”
I came across a piece by the International Policy Digest that confirmed this sentiment: “For the past several years, unemployment rates for virtually every type of blue-collar worker, from managers all the way down to entry-level, low-skilled workers, have risen steadily. It’s essential to note that, over the same period, the number of people with a bachelor’s-level degree has skyrocketed. In other words, there are now more jobs available than there are people who are willing or able to fill them.”
Identifying The Technology Gap In Blue-Collar Industries
This past summer, I participated in the NAMA (National Automatic Merchandising Association) Fly-In & Advocacy Summit in Washington D.C., where discussion centered not only on the importance of much-needed regulations and simplified taxes for small businesses like unattended retailers, but the implementation of new technologies to encourage safer driving and eliminate cross-state restrictions for drivers under the age of 21.
The leadership at the conference also recognized the importance of technology in not only broadening capabilities of younger workers through improved safety but also attracting them to the field itself. The discussions provided a window into the “technology gap” that is likely deterring many younger workers from entering blue-collar positions.
Younger generations were basically born with a phone in their hand, and bring with them an expectation for next-generation technology in whatever career path they choose. They are using technology every day to simplify their lives, make them more productive and allow them to multitask. The idea of not extending these same benefits to the workplace can make many blue-collar businesses appear outdated and unappealing.
Considering how technology can benefit blue-collar industries, unattended retail has already seen some movement of the needle, particularly as second or third generations begin to take the reins from retiring baby boomers. Anecdotally, I hear from many second-generation business owners we work with who moved to integrate digital payments technology after they realized they couldn’t buy a refreshment from their own machines because they don’t carry cash. They also want visibility into real-time business data for smart decision making — not educated guesses based on historical sales.
We’re seeing this movement fueling an increasing adoption of digital payments technology, which in turn, offers these operators access to logistics software through connectivity to the cloud, and is outfitting drivers with better technology, including hand-held devices and apps.
Operators of unattended retail verticals, including vending, parking and kiosk — think anywhere you pay for a good or service without assistance — have been adopting technologies to increase revenue opportunity. These technologies offer consumers cashless and mobile payment options, enable the personalization of every interaction and leverage data for picking the right products, streamlining ordering and empowering drivers to make smarter decisions. This brings a new dimension to the traditional driver role, placing them in a customer service position and empowering them to become a face-to-face consumer liaison, not just a restocker.
A route driver who was part of our panel at an industry conference for unattended retail noted that technology enhancements made his job not only easier, but more enticing, and encouraged him to keep working for his company and eventually move into a management role.
As these industries move forward, the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics technologies will likely increase, and I believe younger generations are particularly well-placed to manage this progression. Here are three considerations blue-collar companies need to make to shift their thinking and attract the younger generation of workers.
The Hangover Effect: There remains a public perception of who the blue-collar candidate is. That profile has changed dramatically as a new generation moves into the workforce. Many next-generation blue-collar workers, such as those entering into manufacturing or trucking positions, are tech-savvy, and we see that they are looking for technology to improve business efficiencies. They want to be able to use technology in their jobs, and positions that are still manual likely won’t be appealing.
Longevity And Decreasing Turnover: Companies that do not bring in new technology and software will likely see higher turnover with these new workers who experience frustration with an outdated approach to business operations. Companies need to leverage technology that mimics the technology used in everyday life: tablets with apps that enable workers to seamlessly integrate warehouse logistics and fulfillment, assist in determining the most efficient delivery route, provide product recommendations based on sales, utilize virtual reality to restock or repair machines, etc.
Age Diversity: Gone are the days of “earning your stripes.” We find that younger generations not only come in with an expectation for being able to prove their worth quickly but also offer resources and insights based on their exposure to technology from an early age. Companies need to be open to the ideas of younger people and empower them to take the lead. By providing them with the opportunity to create solutions for a blue-collar work environment based on their own experience and access to technology, these positions will be a more attractive option to this younger generation.
As companies within the unattended retail industry and other industries that employ traditional blue-collar workers consider how best to attract and retain the next generation, they must fill the technology gap. Those that do will likely benefit from better hiring and retention and ensure future growth and scale for their businesses.