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Recruiting Blue Collar Workers

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

By Warren Wright of Saeculum Research

It wasn’t always this tough to find good people for jobs in construction, manufacturing, healthcare and other blue-collar industries.

According to generational expert, Warren Wright, over the past two decades – there has been a dramatic shift in the workforce landscape. In the 1980’s blue-collar sectors supplied a massive share of America’s hourly jobs. Construction and manufacturing supplied more than one-third of all U.S. hourly workers.  Fast-forward merely twenty years, today those industries account for less than one-fifth of hourly workers.1

What can the employers of hourly workers in manufacturing, construction, and healthcare do to find and retain young talent?

They face challenges on two fronts: engaging workers who aren’t particularly attached to their jobs and appealing to members of a generation who don’t see a future in their industries. In many respects, the things that Millennials want from their jobs—such as a competitive salary or good benefits—are no different from what previous generations wanted. But employers must recognize that Millennials are also bringing new and different priorities and expectations to the workplace. So, what kinds of practices work best for them?

Make the Pitch

Highlight the career potential of these fields. 

Recruiters in blue-collar fields like construction should consider creating formal outreach programs for a generation that has had far less exposure to these industries than their parents and grandparents did. Find out what assumptions are keeping young people away and counter them with positive messages. RV manufacturer Thor Industries, for example, offers tours to eighth graders and their parents but also has a presence in schools with kids as young as third graders. We get them early,” says Ken Julian, Thor Industries vice president of HR, “and let them know that they can get into a well-paid, stable work environment.”2 

Create the Right Environment

Promote teamwork 

The workplace offers plenty of opportunities to leverage Millennials’ team ethic. When searching for new employees, consider recruiting Millennials with and through their friends. Design immersive, multi-day orientations that allow new hires to bond with their co-workers. At the office, allow your employees to stay connected with each other. Don’t block social media sites or assume that texts, tweets, and chats hurt productivity. Often, all these digital streams simply reflect how young adults are accustomed to working. They use these tools to collaborate, solve problems, and share information. 

Team-oriented Millennials also place a high value on involvement in social causes. They want to work for organizations that contribute positively to society. To raise Millennials’ engagement, roll out an internal branding campaign about how your organizational mission helps people or offer them opportunities to participate in community service projects.” Nonprofit health care provider SwedishAmerican Health System has made this sentiment central to its training and onboarding process. The CEO reviews the company’s organizational mission in a 45-minute session that includes personal stories from employees.3

Another employer with an outward-facing onboarding strategy is Airstream, a division of RV manufacturing giant, Thor Industries. Airstream has found success with a comprehensive onboarding process that takes new hires through the history and values of the company, discusses its community outreach efforts, gives a safety briefing, and assigns them mentors. The company then checks in with employees over the next two days to see how they’re doing. Launched at Airstream last year, the process is now being implemented across Thor’s other brands.4

Keep it positive

A common gripe among older managers is that Millennial employees act entitled and expect special treatment. Instead of knocking them down, however, consider how to channel Millennials’ high expectations into a great performance. Resist the urge to tell them to “pay their dues”; leave the door open for new hires to contribute their ideas. For positions where workers don’t have much room for input, make it clear how the work they’re doing is integral to your team’s mission and express your appreciation. Chris Wirkus, a construction superintendent at Chicago-based road builder, Gallagher Asphalt, credits the company’s unusually low turnover (compared to the rest of the industry) to its supportive culture. He says he treats his foremen and crews like sons, and that each crew is “like a family.”5

Emphasize safety and provide institutional support systems.

Ensure that incoming Millennial employees and their parents know that safety is a top concern and promote a culture of transparency by offering easy access to safety records. Cleveland Construction, for example, offers a comprehensive safety program that requires subcontractors to go through every step of a project to identify and address any potential hazards before work begins. The company also holds weekly safety talks, orientations, jobsite inspections, and site audits. 
Remember, however, that Millennials’ concerns aren’t just about physical safety. This generation is accustomed to relying on institutions and authority figures to advise and protect them across all areas of their lives. At work, this might take the form of a friendly manager who offers life advice and encouragement—or of an employer offering wellness workshops or assistance to help new hires get the most out of any benefits.


1Occupation and industry, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017,

LifeCourse interview with Ken Julian

LifeCourse interview with Jerry Guinane

LifeCourse interview with Ken Julian

LifeCourse interview with Chris Wirkus)

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