Workforce Development in the Advent of the Age of the Silver Collar

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Traditionally, we are aware of the disparities that exist between the blue collar worker and the white collar worker. They include education gaps, skills gaps, pay gaps, and purpose gaps. In this employment dynamic and power posturing, all workers are human.

Many of us at this point in time are also aware that technological advancements in robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are rapidly ushering in a new kind of workforce — that which I’ve dubbed the “silver collar”, or machine labor. We’re probably all familiar with the replacement of the human assembly line worker with technology, but there is a lot of conversation about other industries and roles held traditionally by humans that will soon have us competing against our silver collar brethren. A quick google search will spare me from linking to the infinite amount of opinion and research out there.

There are many competing views about how quickly and pervasively these substitutions will be made (and I highly recommend reading ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ by Klaus Schwab for those interested), but it is hard to argue from an economic and efficiency perspective that there will not be massive change in the human workforce based on the adoption of technology across most, if not all, sectors of work. Yes, the robots are takin’ our jobs!!

There is the potential for the rate of silver collared workers entering the workforce to outpace the reassignment and redevelopment of human work — and with that comes a potential for widespread crisis. Think unemployment, underemployment, job dissatisfaction, decrease in purchasing power & productivity, etc., etc. Another question we must consider is the obligation of corporations to “reskill” existing employees or how education models will prepare new market entrants for this new “nature of work”.

Bare with me for a moment, as I pull from The Fourth Industrial Revolution, where Klaus outlines the problem thus:

“Scarcity of a skilled workforce rather than the availability of capital is more likely to be the crippling limit to innovation, competitiveness, and growth. Traditional definitions of skilled labor rely on the presence of advanced or specialized education and a set of defined capabilities within a profession or domain expertise. Given the increasing rate of change of technologies, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will demand and place more emphasis on the ability of workers to adapt continuously and learn new skills and approaches within a variety of contexts.

The Forum’s Future of Jobs study also showed that less than 50% of chief human resource offers are at least reasonably confident in their organization’s workforce strategy to prepare for these shifts. The main barriers to a more decisive approach include companies’ lack of understanding of the nature of disruptive changes, little or no alignment between workforce strategies and firms innovation strategies, resource constraints, and short-term profitability pressures. As a consequence… relatively marginal actions are being taken by companies to address these challenges.”

Ooof. Dire outlook, no?

As I think about the work that humble does with startups (those pesky rascals bringing these technological advancements ever faster), and our work with enterprises (to help shepherd their digital innovation strategies), I am ever more cognizant of the interconnectedness of all three collars — blue, white, and silver.

In our model, we prepare both the startup and the enterprise to embrace workforce development as continuous adaptation across a variety of contexts — with innovation and technology top of mind. We enforce “complex problem solving, social and systems skills “— as they are projected to be far more valuable in terms of employment and innovation even by 2020. This means looking at internal and external ecosystem risks, relentless focus on the customer and the problem, and the technology-enabled interconnectedness of peer groups to collaborate a la open innovation style.

As we move into what I’ve dubbed the Age of the Silver Collar, I challenge all of the stakeholders — public, private, and government — to develop both the blue and white collar workforces in ways that promote our ability “to work with and alongside increasingly capable, connected, and intelligent machines.” Now is the time to embrace the impact — not when it’s too late.