Recently, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and her PR team are trying to make “new collar” happen. It’s a buzzword for technical jobs in the vocational trades (vo-tech as it’s called in education circles) and it is changing the way schools train students to fit new workforce demands.
Semantically, “new collar” is a branding spin-off of “grey collar,” and older term describing work by so-called “middle skill” technicians and engineers. These jobs require a white collar skill set that is applied to physical work with the hands, leaving blue-collar implications intact.
The nature of technology-driven manufacturing renders those collars and their colors obsolete in any meaningful sense. Thus the need for a new collar—and IBM hopes that it can provide leadership with it.
Changing times, changing trades, changing collars
Manufacturing trades, as understood in decades past, is largely a relic of history. Rust belt jobs moving overseas, the collapse of organized labor, and most recently, industrial automation, each squashed the old blue-collar ideal.
Despite certain campaign promises there will be no “rebirth” of unskilled manufacturing work. However, jobs data suggests that blue-collar work is in high demand. It’s the kind of blue collar job that fetches six figures with the right skills and a few years’ experience.
Corporate partnerships funding vo-tech in public schools
In response to the need for specialized labor, schools have started to respond to the mechanization and technology in the trades. Vo-tech is a hot idea right now in the education sector, and it’s in a position to solve a Millennial problem: earning a degree that racks up six-figures of student debt without any job prospects to show for it.
Hands-on learning in highly technical fields. IT, CAD work, industrial design, computerized metal machining are commonplace in vo-tech curriculum. It deliberately addresses the skills mismatch in the U.S.
“According to the most recent figures, 9.3 million Americans are unemployed, but 4.8 million jobs stand empty because employers can’t find people to fill them. With new technology transforming work across a range of sectors, more and more businesses are struggling to find workers with the skills to man new machines and manage new processes.” – Tamar Jacoby, The Atlantic
Vo-tech dual training might not catch on in the U.S.
P-TECH, a corporate-public partnership between IBM and New York City institutions of public education, is at the forefront of the new vo-tech model. The first prototype P-TECH school opened in Crown Heights Brooklyn in 2011, a six-year program that starts in 9th grade. In it, IBM furnishes students with coursework, mentorship, and paid internship opportunities that align with skills the company needs in its workforce.
The IBM approach models after the “dual training” methods used in the German education system. Whereas 5 percent of American students enter an apprenticeship after high school, 60 percent of German high school graduates enter vocational career paths. In the final years of schooling, students split time between classroom training and on-the-job learning; and the work carries prestige in the culture.
Corporations foot hefty bills funding the dual training model. Siemens, a German company with a U.S. headquarters in North Carolina, spends $17,000 per student apprentice. For U.S. corporations considering similar programs, proving short-term ROI is a challenge that experts recognize as prohibitive.
Another challenge lies in unstandardized occupational profiles in the U.S. labor force, haphazard in compared to uniform job descriptions adopted across German companies—something established by a healthy working relationship between labor unions and industry leadership there.
Americans have a blue-collar attitude problem
Economics expert Dr. Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute says it’s a hard road ahead to change the meaning of blue-collar work. He points to “a society-wide push for four-year college, and a perception that [manufacturing jobs] offer lower pay and backbreaking work.”
Recent scrutiny stems from graduates racking up prohibitive student debt in four-year programs with sparse opportunities for gainful employment right out of school. “Unless you’re going to learn a trade, like doctoring or lawyering, or you’re going for science, engineering, or math, where you need the formal discipline and where you need lab courses, it’s a total misallocation, even a waste of money to go to college today,” says investment analyst and author Doug Casey.
The new collar movement stands to shift away from the broken paradigm of higher education. IBM faces substantial inertia to move the needle on what blue-collar means for U.S. students. Nevertheless, the vo-tech education model and the new collar ideal pose attractive opportunities for next-gen students watching the struggle of their older siblings.
NeweggBusiness partners with schools to supply vo-tech initiatives. Read how Missouri students build computers that they use throughout their tenure at school; or helped Los Angeles-area students assembling CAD-ready workstations for their high school computer lab.