By Beth Braccio Hering
Imagine a 1950s auto mechanic stepping into a modern repair shop. While some familiar hand tools would remain, the worker would be stunned by the sophisticated diagnostic equipment needed to work on ordinary cars equipped with computers and electronic components.
The mechanic's high school diploma might allow him to handle oil changes, but co-workers with specialized training would perform major repairs. And if he had questions regarding the vehicle, he could use the shop's computer to search a digital manual or even chat live with someone from corporate headquarters.
There's no doubt that blue-collar jobs have changed through the decades, and with more advances as the 21st century continues, tomorrow's workplace is bound to look different as well. Here are four things modern workers need to realize:
1. Computers and technology influence all aspects of business.
Workers today use all sorts of high-tech equipment, from specialized machinery and software programs to devices that map out the most efficient delivery route. These advances are changing efficiency, production, safety issues and people's daily routines.
Consider this example from the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association: Instead of having to view layers of drawings on a lighted table, Building Information Modeling software creates 3-D and even 4-D images of a proposed building. Subcontractors in various trades meet regularly to view the plans on a computer screen and see how their work impacts that of others. This helps avoid construction clashes previously not noticed until the building was going up in the field. The federal government and a few state ones mandate the use of BIM on their projects.
Technological advances also influence how business is conducted. Tim McKenna, a second-generation plumber from Ohio, remarks that his family business "now uses email and an online shopping cart to order material or check pricing/inventory from our supply house." Similarly, texting, social media and websites have changed marketing, scheduling and client interaction.
2. Education and training are increasingly important.
"The U.S. workforce has drastically changed from mostly unskilled to a high dependence on skilled workers," says Joel Leonard, a workforce development consultant and host of SkillTV.net. "Many unskilled jobs have been exported to Third World countries or automated."
Face it: If you were an employer, would you want someone without training operating your multimillion-dollar equipment? A high school diploma is often viewed as a minimum requirement nowadays, with post-secondary experience through apprenticeships, on-the-job training and formal classes becoming the norm.
Notes Jeannine Kunz, director of professional development for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and the online training site ToolingU.com, "Today, the industry needs workers who have the skills to process parts, program and maintain highly sophisticated multi-tasking machines, and understand how to improve their performance. They need to be problem solvers. For instance, a person who is making the titanium orthopedic part for a knee replacement needs these skills to produce the part with the precision and quality that will meet FDA standards and last the patient's lifetime. At the same time, a worker has to be continually on the lookout for the company's profitability."
3. Being a lifelong learner may save your job.
If you are adaptable, chances are you'll be employable. Workers who are open to learning different ways of doing things can progress right alongside advances in their industry.
"Many of those laid off in recent years, especially from high-volume assembly manufacturing jobs, do not have the skills needed in today's modern plant," Kunz says. "Like generations before them, they worked 'on the line,' repeating the same action over and over again. But those types of repetitive assembly jobs are disappearing and are not likely to return ... Ongoing training is critical."
Kunz notes that in addition to traditional company-sponsored training or courses at a vocational institution, many workers are opting for online instruction. "Access to 24/7 training is appealing. Workers might continue their studies online at home, or they might have time during the third shift, in the middle of the night, to complete their training."
4. The differences between blue collar and white collar are narrowing.
Finally, as companies increasingly rely on well-trained workers, don't be surprised to see distinctions between blue collar and white continue to blur. Leonard even suggests a new classification -- green collar.
"(Old) labels divided our culture into two classes, where blue-collar workers traditionally were paid less and were required to respond to mandates from white-collar professionals. This inequality sometimes created an 'us-versus-them' mentality, impacting business productivity and profitability. Now, through flattening of the traditional business infrastructure, many responsibilities previously held by white-collar workers are performed by hourly personnel.... The green-collar category is a hybrid that combines attributes from both, and the color also signifies the significant wage potential for those in the new category."
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