Gold-Collar Workers. ERIC Digest.
by Wonacott, Michael E.
What do these workers have in common: aircraft systems maintenance technicians,
computer engineers, holders of a master of science in physics-entrepreneurship
track, customer service representatives engaged in electronic customer
relationship management, and older workers. They are all considered gold-collar
workers, by one commentator or another. This Digest reviews the characteristics
of gold-collar workers and identifies implications of those characteristics
for employers and educators.
WHAT IS A GOLD-COLLAR WORKER?
A Higher Level of Knowledge Work. Kelley (1990) described an old distinction
that divided the work force into blue-collar and white-collar workers.
Blue-collar workers typically did manual labor in a factory for hourly
pay, whereas white-collar workers did knowledge work in an office on salary.
However, changes in the nature of work and the workplace have led to large
growth in the numbers of a particular kind of knowledge worker--the gold-collar
worker, whose most valuable assets are problem-solving abilities, creativity,
talent, and intelligence; who performs nonrepetitive and complex work that
is difficult to evaluate; and who prefers self-management. The gold-collar
worker is, for example, the computer engineer as opposed to a lower-level
knowledge worker such as an input operator. Kelley pointed out that even
though the name is new, there have always been gold-collar workers like
designers, researchers, analysts, engineers, and lawyers.
Learning, Teams, and Strategic Thinking. Wood (2001) characterized gold-collar
workers in information technology (IT) similarly by focusing on qualitative
matters. Gold-collar IT workers learn continually from experience. They
recognize the synergy of teams and can demonstrate leadership; they are
strategic thinkers who see the big picture and can change strategic directions
when necessary. They have a portable, flexible skill base relevant to a
variety of work environments and maintain that skill base through their
own personal development, with well-connected networks of contacts at the
Interdisciplinary Knowledge. Where business and science intersect, the
basic focus of the gold-collar worker is interdisciplinary knowledge and
experience (Bartlett 1998; Todaro 2001; Van Nierop and Bow 1997). This
interdisciplinary focus combines scientific or other technical knowledge
and skills with business literacy to result in a gold-collar worker with
expertise across several areas. Gold-collar engineers, chemists, biologists,
physicists, or geoscientists understand the relationship between their
scientific discipline and business, have the management and financial knowledge
needed for a business environment, and can "marry" science and entrepreneurship.
Other Characterizations. Roe (2001) called the gold-collar worker "a
highly skilled multidisciplinarian who combines the mind of the white-collar
worker with the hands of the blue-collar employee" (p. 32); examples include
aircraft systems maintenance technicians, network administrators, and advanced
manufacturing technicians. A similar case would be online customer service
representatives (CSRs), for whom managing customer relationships now involves
not only oral communication but also text-based Internet chat and e-mail
about tough questions not answered in frequently asked questions or canned
e-mail responses (Dicksteen 2001). Others describe gold-collar workers
as those in high-skill, high-wage, high-demand occupations that require
less than a bachelor's degree--for example, chemical process industry (CPI)
operators and technicians (Shanley and Crabb 1999); or electrical power
line installers, telephone and cable TV installers, plumbers, pipe fitters,
and electricians (Raffaele 2001). Some consider older workers, with their
irreplaceable fund of knowledge and experience, to be the gold-collar work
force ("Gold-Collar Workers" 2001).
What Do They Share? Although those characterizations are different,
they share some common themes:
* For gold-collar workers, knowledge is not just having information;
it is using information--to solve problems, to create solutions and strategies,
to learn from experience.
* Gold-collar workers typically use knowledge from more than one area.
In some cases, gold-collar knowledge crosses formal, academic disciplines
like science and business; in others, occupationally specific technical
knowledge is used in combination with more general process, communication,
and learning-to-learn skills.
* Gold-collar workers tend to be autonomous. Traditional gold-collar
professionals (engineers, lawyers) have always enjoyed a high degree of
autonomy. With the disappearance of much middle management, newer gold-collar
workers like online CSRs and CPI operators, formerly considered skilled
trades, often perform work once done by degreed professionals.
* Gold-collar workers tend to work in traditionally male occupations
like engineering, law, or IT. Traditionally female occupations involving
comparable knowledge work (e.g., nursing or teaching) don't receive the
accolade "gold collar."
* However they are characterized, gold-collar workers are in great demand.
Whether a top Visual Basic programmer in IT, a physicist with an MBA, or
a 60-year-old who chooses to cut back rather than retire, gold-collar workers
are sought, recruited, and hired--sometimes so eagerly that they can write
their own ticket.
IMPLICATIONS FOR EMPLOYERS AND EDUCATORS
The characteristics of gold-collar workers, coupled with the great demand
for them, raise human resource development issues for employers (Holland,
Hecker, and Steen 2002). Appropriate organizational policy and structures
are needed to manage, recruit, and retain gold-collar workers; in addition,
both employers and educators may need to reorient traditional thinking
to educate and increase the pool of gold-collar workers.
*Managing Gold-Collar Workers
According to Peter F. Drucker (cited in Bunk 1999), knowledge is the
principal resource of the 21st century, and knowledge is fundamentally
different from the traditional resources of labor, raw materials, or capital.
Unlike information, which can be computer generated, knowledge is in the
minds of workers and arises from their own cognition and insight; knowledge
workers own the primary tool of their own work and can take that tool with
them if they change jobs. That knowledge is dynamic, and the goal of management
should be enhancing, exchanging, and using it effectively rather than preserving
and systematizing it like a static resource. A more productive approach
to managing gold-collar workers includes concentrating on end results by
setting goals rather than controlling the processes involved. Goals provide
guidance and help ensure that workers don't stray too far into the details
of bench work, for example. At the same time, they can allow the leeway
and flexibility necessary for exploring and tinkering, from which new solutions,
new strategies, and new learning result. Managers should use their own
judgment to determine when and if more detailed plans and regular updates
to monitor progress are needed.
In particular, managers must recognize that the scientific management
theories and tools to handle unskilled, Industrial Age, assembly-line workers
are not appropriate for the nonrepetitive and complex work activities of
gold-collar workers (Kelley 1990). The planning, scheduling, and quality
control necessary to monitor progress should be a cross-functional team
effort among all workers involved; written progress reports should be kept
to a minimum and replaced insofar as possible by brief onsite meetings,
one on one or with the work team as a whole. Time management techniques
should allow workers to focus both on important and urgent tasks as well
as on the important but often less urgent major knowledge tasks of the
team; uninterrupted periods of concentration should be preserved. To minimize
or avoid the ego problems sometimes experienced with talented workers,
groups can set norms for social behavior, allowing somewhat greater latitude
for emotions and behavior. Individual work and contributions should receive
regular recognition--and at the same time, constructive criticism must
be sought, accepted, and used. Power struggles over turf can be avoided
by challenging assignments to stretch individual abilities, team rather
than independent work, and rewards for group performance in addition to
individual performance. Managers can bend organizational rules, allowing
departures from the letter of the rule in favor of performance and results
that accomplish the spirit of the rule. Put another way (Curtin 1995),
gold-collar workers want a transformational leader who has charisma, who
represents an ideal they can assimilate and adopt, and who provides the
stimulation and individualized consideration they need to become more than
Recruiting and Retaining Gold-Collar Workers
Writing before the economic downturn of 2000-01, Munk (1998) contrasted
William H. Whyte's Organization Man, under the old employment contract
of "loyalty in exchange for lifetime employment and a gold watch" (p. 68),
with younger gold-collar workers who are "educated, smart, creative, computer
literate, equipped with portable skills--and demanding" (p. 64) and who
view work "as a hobby that you happen to get paid for" (p. 65). Although
hardly indifferent to financial compensation, the new Organization Man--and
Woman--are more concerned with nonfinancial rewards and benefits in the
workplace, such as a casual and informal work environment, flexible work
schedules to accommodate their personal lives, and even part- or full-time
telecommuting; they're more likely to want to bring their pet to work and
less likely to be interested in onsite child care, 401(k)s, and retirement
plans. Perhaps most important, the portability of their skills and the
widespread demand for them often allow them to be opportunistic. To be
competitive, employers often must offer significant signing bonuses and
high starting salaries to recruit such gold-collar workers--and large raises
on demand to retain them in the face of other job offers. Whether or not
the expectations of such gold-collar workers might change in a tighter
job market is open to question.
Increasing the Pool of Gold-Collar Workers
Many commentators have voiced concerns about current shortages of gold-collar
workers and about forecasts of even greater need for them in the future.
Shortages may, in part, be attributed to stereotypical thinking based on
superficial, outward characteristics--race, ethnic background, gender,
and dress, for example (Sadler 1994). Women are underrepresented in many
gold-collar areas, particularly IT (Yelland 2001), and in other traditionally
male occupations like CPI operators; minorities are often overlooked as
well (Shanley and Crabb 1999). Likewise, bachelor's degree holders, often
unable to find work in their fields and forced into low-pay, low-skill
service jobs, should be considered as promising candidates for an operator's
position, not as deficient or unambitious (ibid.). Older workers, otherwise
on the verge of retirement, should not be overlooked; not only are they
an increasing proportion of the population, they also represent a valuable
source of wisdom and experience ("Gold-Collar Workers" 2001). Educating
Training new workers and retraining older adults should be part of a
work force development system integrating initial education, postsecondary
education, and ongoing training throughout life (Raffaele 2001). Traditional
bachelor's and graduate degree programs may need to expand their focus
beyond a single academic discipline and should help students acquire skills
not typically covered in academic programs, such as communication skills
for a nonspecialist audience and the economics of high-technology operations
(Todaro 2001). And new models of delivery may be essential for a 21st-century
gold-collar work force--for example, web-based distance education developed
and delivered by a partnership combining technical support and subject-matter
expertise (Michigan Virtual Automotive College n.d.).
To sum up ... The multiskilled, knowledge-based, gold-collar worker,
using information to solve problems and create solutions, is highly valued
and likely to become even more so. Employers and educators need new ways
to manage, recruit, retain, and educate them.
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