No Degree, No Problem: Preparing Students for New Collar Jobs Through Alternative Education

The pattern of higher education has been shifting of late to account for the increasingly widespread practice of targeting nontraditional candidates for new collar jobs. In years past, it was expected that most students would earn four-year degrees. Recently, however, employers have found that many degree-holding candidates lack the essential skills required for specific positions.

Historically, these skills were developed through vocational training, and instructions were crafted to address the precise needs of a particular role or scenario. This kind of education was usually considered blue collar, as opposed to professional, white collar work. The typical perception was that white collar professionals worked with their heads while blue collar employees worked with their hands. Today, these lines of demarcation are not as rigid as they used to be. Many emerging jobs fall somewhere in the middle, combining technical skills with a knowledge base that comes from higher education.

Training Tomorrow’s Workforce

In a column for USA Today, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty urged politicians and business leaders to eschew the outdated concept of white and blue collar work and to think of incoming candidates as new collar professionals instead. These workers, she said, can bring “relevant skills” that are “often obtained through vocational training” to major technology companies.

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Over the past several years, IBM has put its money where its mouth is with initiatives such as Pathways in Technology (P-Tech), which enables high school students to earn associate degrees through a six-year program. Many of these graduates will join the IT workforce at IBM or elsewhere, while others will continue their education and pursue bachelor’s degrees.

New Collar Jobs Span Multiple Disciplines

IBM isn’t the only company turning to nontraditional workers. According to NBC News, Cathy Barrera, chief economic adviser for ZipRecruiter, said that the number of new collar positions posted on the popular job search site grew by 45 percent in the first nine months of 2017. Monster, another high-profile job search service, listed some positions commonly occupied by new collar professionals, spanning industries such as health care, technology and manufacturing.

Below are a few key areas that could benefit from the unique perspectives and innovative spirit new collar employees bring to organizations savvy enough to recognize the value of their skills.

Computing and Security

Technical positions are among the best-suited for new collar candidates. In her column, Rometty offered the example of a cloud computing technician. Major technology companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft offer certification programs for students to become experts in their cloud offerings.

Many of these positions require proficiency in Python, Ruby and other programming languages, which students can learn on their own or through formal academic programs. This role would likely call for candidates to carry out the implementation work necessary to realize an experienced developer’s designs.

Another potential new collar role is cybersecurity architect. This professional is involved in all the steps of an organization’s computer security, from design and implementation of the hardware to testing system outcomes with vulnerability assessment software.

Security Analysis and Testing

Software tools can be enormously helpful to service delivery analysts (SDAs), who are tasked with reviewing how computer services are actually provided to end users. These tools simplify the review process and reduce the specific training required to bring SDAs up to speed, making this role more suitable for new collar professionals.

Traditional white collar roles may also lend themselves to this new paradigm. A test engineer, for example, looks at systems and the components they contain, comparing what they do to what is expected of them. Because this testing is limited in scope to a particular system at a specific time, it could be performed by a new collar worker, given the right training and tools. The same could be said of a security device analyst, since this role involves adhering to policies that have already been established as opposed to creating frameworks from scratch.

Support and Training

Support roles require strong people skills, not just technical expertise. A help desk analyst, for instance, has to be able to communicate well with a wide range of people. It may be easier and more efficient to train someone with great communication skills for this role rather than to bring in a technical expert with limited people skills.

Internal training specialists must also be able to communicate effectively. Again, since the policies and information they must impart to others have already been implemented, this professional does not necessarily need to have the technical expertise to create rules and frameworks. He or she is simply responsible for communicating this information clearly and effectively so that other nontechnical employees can understand it — a skill that does not typically require a four-year degree.

Education Is Not One-Size-Fits-All

Obviously, some professions still require candidates to have four-year degrees. It’s also worth noting that traditional colleges offer numerous benefits besides direct job training. However, education is not one-size-fits-all, and neither is the modern workforce. With so many industries looking to new collar workers to fill their skills gaps, this previously untapped trend is likely to keep gaining steam and find footholds in many areas of society.

By creating alternative development opportunities and opening job searches to new collar candidates, companies across multiple sectors can address their skills shortages and place deserving, previously overlooked workers on the path to rewarding, high-paying careers.

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Larry Loeb

Principal, PBC Enterprises

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek. He wrote for IBM's DeveloperWorks site for seven years and has written a book on the Secure Electronic Transaction Internet protocol. His latest book has the commercially obligatory title of Hack Proofing XML. He's been online since uucp "bang" addressing (where the world existed relative to !decvax), serving as editor of the Macintosh Exchange on BIX and the VARBusiness Exchange.