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Attracting non-degreed employees is a first step. Now, how do you create a workplace where new-collar workers help transform your workforce success?

More and more companies are sold on the benefits of skills-based hiring and are actively removing the four-year college degree requirement for many of their jobs. They are actively seeking out talent from a more diverse talent pool – both to fill jobs they’ve had trouble filling and to improve the diversity of their workforce. Now what? What else should companies be doing to recruit – and, more importantly, develop and retain – non-degreed employees?

Gina Remitti, former IBM CEO, coined the term “new-collar workers” to describe this group of employees and to signal a shift in thinking about the group. The term respectfully describes individuals who develop hard and soft skills through nontraditional educational paths – and are just as talented and capable as their degreed colleagues. That subtle shift marks a significant step toward creating a workplace where new-collar workers spark a transformation for an entire workforce and company success. Here’s how you can make that shift at your organization.

Recognize That Skills-Based Hiring is Just the Beginning

A skills-based approach to hiring means actively recruiting and hiring employees based on skills required for a job, not on the candidate’s experience and education. It’s an essential first step and, at a minimum, your company should:

  • Refresh your competency library to reflect the competencies your employees need to perform well in their jobs and roles.
  • Update job descriptions to emphasize abilities over credentials. Include the skills and competencies required for each.
  • Scrub job descriptions to avoid bias. As Datapeople reminds us in this blog, “Targeting one group of candidates over another creates inequality, no matter the intent or the makeup of the groups.” The group cautions against all the “isms” – racism, ableism, tokenism, nationalism, sexism, elitism, along with religious bias.

Learn how to build inclusive job descriptions – and hiring practices – to attract the new-collar workers you’re seeking.

Prepare and Support Hiring Managers of New-Collar Workers

Once the recruiter passes along screened candidates, it’s often the hiring manager who interviews and hires employees for their team. To prepare and support hiring managers of new-collar workers – and, really, all workers:

  • Arm managers with standardized skills assessments to evaluate the skills of potential hires. Usually, a skills assessment evaluates skills specific to a job or role and the outcome lets you know the respondent’s level of proficiency for each skill.
  • Train them to recognize and avoid interview bias. Just as job descriptions can introduce unconscious bias, it’s too easy to ask questions or make judgements during an interview that are not related to skills. For example, “friendly banter” about travel may introduce elitism. Or talking about a “work hard, play hard” culture could characterize your workplace as sexist.
  • Consider using an interview panel. It can be helpful to have multiple people interview job candidates, so more than one person experiences the potential employee to evaluate skills and competencies. Some companies use scorecards to track how the panel members evaluate each candidate – and to keep the interviewers focused on the job criteria above other distracting characteristics.

With the right preparation, you’ll find the new-collar workers with the aptitude you need – and they’ll be excited to join your team as a result of your inclusive hiring practices.

Onboard Your New-Collar Workforce in Cohorts

“It may be tempting to start small” says a Harvard Business Review article on the topic. “However, the company leaders we have spoken to about their skills-first hiring efforts were unanimous and definitive: A tentative approach is counterproductive.”

Instead, those company leaders say to:

  • Provide onramps, such as apprenticeships, internships, and training programs. Onramps can effectively build the skills that new employees need to succeed on the job – while participants get acquainted with your work environment.
  • Create a cohort experience. Investing in cohorts of new-collar workers sends a loud signal – both to your newest employees and the rest of your workforce. New hires who might otherwise feel uncertain about their place will build confidence among others in the community. Their colleagues will have one more proof point to support your commitment to a skills-first approach to talent management across the organization.

By giving your new-collar workers the support they deserve from the moment they arrive, you are setting them up to succeed. You’re also setting up your company to embrace a transformative shift to focus on skills, first.

Lead from the Top

Though it’s becoming more popular, the move to minimize reliance on college degrees as a proxy for work readiness is still relatively new. It may take a while for the idea to catch on at your company.

Enlist your CEO to:

  • Communicate a vision of building talent. Let your team know that the company prefers, when practical, to build the skills of current employees rather than buy new talent from outside.
  • Share the company’s “why” behind the approach, so team members understand that the shift is not just a fad; it’s a business priority.
  • Return to the topic periodically with updates on your skills-first progress and examples of success (just like any other business priority).

Senior leaders can set a tone of inclusivity that celebrates workforce skills and employees from a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.

Support Career Mobility for All

A skills-first culture isn’t just for new employees from nontraditional backgrounds. Though you will want to closely monitor the needs and successes of groups that historically have had limited advancement opportunities, a skills-first culture can and should be for all employees, at every level of the organization.

To succeed:

  • Practice skills-based performance. Define, measure, and build the skills of all employees as part of your performance management program. Each employee should have awareness, a voice, and agreement on the skills they need to succeed. Throughout the year, check in with employees to see if they are on track or if anything has changed with their goals or the company’s needs.
  • Cultivate all internal talent. In addition to traditional learning and development opportunities designed to support employees’ career progression, introduce skill-building programs that will help employees build entirely new skill sets. As one example, Delta offers apprenticeship programs for existing employees.
  • Promote based on skills. Bring to the promotion decisions the same rigor that you’re putting into the hiring process, so it’s clear to all that promotions are based on skills.
  • Create internal career mobility. Provide flexible, internal career paths for employees interested in changing their career focus or level of responsibility – without leaving your company.

An initiative to attract new-collar workers may spark an acceleration of skill-building and career opportunities. Your company truly benefits, though, when those programs become part of the fabric of your culture, where new-collar workers are not stigmatized for participating and all employees get to experience the rewarding outcomes.

Collaborate to Build a Skills-First Future

Not all skill building needs to happen inside your company. To supplement your internships, apprenticeships, and upskilling and reskilling training programs, reach out to others.

  • Upskill with community learning institutions such as community colleges who are interested in ensuring that participants are learning the skills your company needs.
  • Build or join business coalitions dedicated to building talent in your community or industry. The Chicago Apprentice Network, for example, was formed to help more businesses establish successful apprenticeship programs. It started with three companies and, today, is a coalition of more than 90. OneTen is a coalition of business leaders who are working together to cultivate economic opportunities for Black talent in America. They bring together “employers, education and training programs and community organizations to create accessible pathways to family-sustaining careers for Black talent and support their ongoing advancement.”
  • Discover and work with companies that are building the skills you need. For example Catalyte is a Baltimore, Maryland-based company that runs a technology skill and job placement program for people of all backgrounds who show an aptitude for technology. Once participants complete the apprenticeship, Catalyte places the employees on tech jobs the company is hired to perform for its clients.

Whether you’re just getting started or looking to fine-tune your new-collar program, a shift to become a skills-first organization will help you confirm that new-collar workers are just as capable as their non-degreed colleagues. In fact, it will help all your employees propel their careers, and your company, forward.


Ready to start building a skills-first approach for your new-collar workers? (Or for your entire workforce?) Download our Competency Management Toolkit and contact us to find out how Avilar’s WebMentor Skills™ competency management systems could support your next steps.


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College Degrees vs. Skills and Competencies
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How to Use Competency-Based Hiring for Internal Employees