“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” This wisdom applies to addressing the most rapidly evolving workforce we’ve seen since the industrial revolution.
In today’s economy, the outpouring of frustration over the current economic situation reflects a widening disconnect between workers of 1960 America and workers of 2017 America. The problem is that we are responding to workforce issues while assuming that yesterday’s blue-collar job is relevant. The hard truth: It isn’t, at least not in the way we have defined it.
In this economy, we all occupy white-collar jobs. Forget about labels, and think about definitions.
Most jobs today are structured to serve the corporate bottom line. Being effective requires critical thinking, problem-solving and at least some human interaction. In addition, the best ideas for innovation are lurking with the direct service provider, the factory floor worker and the retail store attendant. No company wants those insights and breakthroughs walking out the front door. Every position requires engagement with the task at hand and with the opportunities and relationships those tasks depend upon.
Yet, in this new economy, companies and people are suffering. There is an ugly trend that defines employees as expenses and corporations as fat cats. In reality, a synergistic partnership between employer and employee will create the virtuous circle that ensures profits rise and employees are satisfied, that they are the loyal producers companies really need them to be.
Too frequently, companies let their low-skilled workers languish. It’s the merchandisers, the distributors and the retail floor clerks who become trapped in a low-skill gap trap: not enough education to move up, no clear path to developing new skills within companies, exorbitant employee turnover rates (over 100 percent sometimes!) and no way for companies to fill middle-skill positions. Instead, employees are treated as filling short-term, plug-and-play roles and are viewed as low-educated, limited-value functions or, worse, easily replaced commodities. This situation has tragic consequences up and down the economy.
The inevitable high turnover that comes with this approach requires human resources to focus disproportionate attention on recruitment and hiring. Uber’s recent experience is instructive. The company was growing so quickly the CEO commanded HR to “hire, hire, hire.” But the culture suffered dearly, and it reached the drivers – who are not robots (yet). The drivers saw changes in their pay and their role (they were forced to do more carpools than solo-client driving, for example), and they suffered. Before long, they were moving to Uber’s major competitor, Lyft, and letting everyone know Uber mistreated them. The company then had to confront a string of self-inflicted wounds.
The alternative is more popular and productive: Offer employees a path up, not out. This approach is attractive and increases engagement and results. Companies must invest in their low-skilled workers to move them into hard-to-fill middle-skilled positions, and fast. At least 600,000 middle-skilled jobs remain unfilled in the United States. Companies are relying too heavily on the traditional higher education system (which is too financially burdensome for many), and employees are relying on themselves without clear direction.
Companies need to treat people not as machinery you plug in, but to nurture them. Sustained investment in skill-building among employees improves culture, ultimately hitting the bottom line.
Maybe now is the time for new labels, because everyone deserves to achieve their potential, and our economy depends on it.