What Are Gray-Collar Workers?

6 minutes read

We’re all familiar with the concept of white-collar and blue-collar workers. After all, those terms have been around for more than a century. But a different kind of worker is getting more attention these days. Although the term “gray-collar workers” has only existed since 2004, we’re starting to hear it more and more often.  

What exactly are gray-collar workers? As the name implies, these employees fall somewhere between blue-collar workers and their white-collar counterparts in terms of their jobs and the physicality, technical skills and education needed to do them. 

Like blue-collar employees, gray-collar workers often engage in physical labor. However, they also wield technical skills equal to (and sometimes surpassing) those of white-collar workers. They don’t always hold college degrees, but about 1 in 5 gray-college workers do have a master’s degree or some graduate school experience.

Also called “middle-skilled” and “hybrid” employees, gray-collar workers make up a significant portion of the labor market. In fact, gray-collar professions include:

  • First responders, including police, firefighters and first responders
  • Teachers and child care workers
  • Engineers
  • IT professionals 
  • Nurses, lab techs and other nonphysician health care professionals 
  • Airline pilots and flight attendants
  • Licensed/certified sales professionals, such as realtors and insurance brokers 
  • Government employees

In other words, these are many of the essential workers who kept the country running when COVID-19 emerged in 2020. And going forward, employers will need them more than ever. 

The Growing Demand for Gray-Collar Workers

Many industries have an increasing need for gray-collar workers—although they may not call them as such. This includes: 

  • Healthcare, largely due to our aging population.
  • Manufacturing, due to the rapid adoption of new factory technologies. 
  • The public sector, including education and law enforcement.
  • Staffing, which serves many industries and needs workers with diverse skills. 

As companies continue to adopt ever-advancing technologies, the need for tech-savvy gray-collar workers will only continue to grow—the Great Resignation notwithstanding.

Attracting and Retaining Gray-Collar Workers

In the past, gray-collar workers were often grouped with the blue-collar workforce—and, as such, largely overlooked. But if gray-collar workers are important to your business, it’s to your advantage to recognize them directly, especially when it comes to recruitment and talent development. 

That might mean: 

  • Updating your job descriptions to more clearly define gray-collar positions, specifically regarding technical skills.
  • Tweaking your recruiting software—such as résumé keyword search criteria—to quickly identify qualified candidates. 
  • Ensuring your pay scales are current and competitive for these positions. 
  • Rethinking your hiring requirements. Is a bachelor’s degree really necessary when applicants have the right experience and certifications? 
  • Ensuring your onboarding software is geared to helping gray-collar workers succeed.
  • Upgrading your online training program to help gray-collar workers sharpen their skills—and to train blue-collar workers to take on gray-collar positions.  

Additionally, Laurie Ruettimann, an HR expert who will be keynoting PrismHR Live, which takes place June 19-22, 2022, recently listed these four “R’s” as strategies for appealing to gray-collar workers:

  • Rebrand
  • Rethink
  • Reskill
  • Retain

Clearly, all workers are important—regardless of collar-color designations. However, appealing to various groups of workers directly, on their own terms, can give employers a competitive edge. 

No shades of gray about it. 

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