Engaging blue-collar workers is one of HR's biggest challenges.

Is your company engaging blue-collar workers with a focus on recognition and pride? (Photo via UC Rusal, Flickr)

Engaging blue-collar workers may be one of the biggest engagement challenges facing HR today.
Hourly workers are unhappier than salaried workers in many job aspects, according to recently released Gallup poll data.
A Harvard Business Review analysis concluded, “People working blue-collar jobs report lower levels of overall happiness in every region around the world. This is the case across a variety of labor-intensive industries like construction, mining, manufacturing, transport, farming, fishing and forestry.”
Retention is a big problem, too. The “new blue-collar” industries, such as foodservice and hospitality, grapple with it on even bigger scales.
And there’s the skills gap.
The historical loss of manufacturing jobs has hurt communities across the U.S., yet currently “a significant number of manufacturing jobs remain open with not enough people to fill them,” according to HR Dive. “The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) predicts that U.S. companies will be facing two million job vacancies by 2025. And the American Welding Society contends that manufacturing industries will need 300,000 welders and welding instructors by 2020.”
One expert, Jobcase CEO Fred Goff, tells HR Dive he blames the skills gap on an “image problem.” Young people for decades have understood that the best way to a rewarding career is through a college degree and a job in finance, marketing, law, engineering or teaching.
“The ‘image problem’ that these blue-collar fields face has finally come home to roost — and employers are struggling to make up the difference,” according to HR Dive.

What’s Missing in Engaging Blue-Collar Workers? Recognition!

“Blue-collar fields are desperate for talented workers, but few young Americans are aware thanks to the aforementioned image gap,” HR Dive’s Kathryn Moody and Valerie Bolden-Barrett write.
The skills gap facing blue-collar fields is dire enough that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) convened a panel earlier this year on this topic.
One economic expert told the EEOC panel, “Few parents want their kids to work in such industries thanks to a society-wide push for four-year college and a perception that such jobs offer lower pay and backbreaking work.”
Interestingly, perception doesn’t match reality, HR Dive finds. Blue-collar workers are in demand and, in general, paid competitive wages.
But that negative perception can still filter down to current employees in blue-collar industries, particularly in how they’re managed, and that’s an engagement problem.
The stigma attached to blue-collar jobs has a powerful antidote in recognition. Recognition helps build employee pride — and employees who are proud of their work are motivated and engaged. How is your company communicating to your blue-collar workers the positive impact of their day-to-day work?
Leadership needs to understand and follow through on recognition goals, particularly in developing an emotional connection with workers.
According to the Association for Talent Developmen (ATD), leaders aren’t engaging blue-collar workers at the same level as white-collar workers:

The majority of leaders, especially those in blue-collar industries, fail to realize that character development (personal growth) of people at all levels of the organization will create a high-performance culture where associates are more productive (increased performance), more satisfied (less turnover), and more engaged (more creativity, improved teamwork, and better customer service). …
Highly effective blue-collar leaders intentionally build strong, authentic relationships with their team members. They go far beyond what is required and develop meaningful relationships by encouraging, engaging, and empowering all of their team members.

If blue-collar workers are getting a societal message that their jobs aren’t desirable or don’t matter, leaders need to combat that perception with a strong engagement program that focuses on job value and recognition. In practical terms, according to ATD, this means lots of encouragement:

Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, remarked, “How do you know if someone needs encouragement? If they’re breathing they need encouragement.” The best way to encourage a blue-collar team is to make them feel like they matter. Motivate and inspire them. If they feel like they don’t matter, most often, it’s because of how their leader makes them feel that way.

And forget engagement surveys, the ATD authors write:

When an employee engagement survey is needed, it means the leaders are not engaged. After logging more than 11,000 hours helping blue-collar leaders and their teams through process improvement, organizational change and cultural transformation, I absolutely believe the call for a survey indicates a leadership problem at the top, not an employee problem at the bottom.

7 Practical Tips for Engaging Blue-Collar Workers

Need a little practical inspiration? Here are 10 suggestions for engaging blue-collar workers on the ground, every day:
1. Provide development opportunities. In industries with a skills gap, helping employees get the education they need is both motivating and good for business.
2. Empower workers in decision-making. It demonstrates trust and invests employees in the company.
3. Train leaders in engagement. Location managers and shift supervisors on up to the C-Suite need to understand the value of recognition — and have the skills to implement it.
4. Make leadership visible and available. Do your blue-collar workers even know who’s on the leadership team? Making management visible to workers and available to connect fosters a workplace culture of “we’re in this together.”
5. Share “winning moments” in the moment. Successes at the company level, team level and individual level deserve recognition, right away! Celebrating small wins is a powerful yet simple way to make the work more meaningful and rewarding.
6. Enable peer-to-peer recognition. Set up a process for employees to thank and reward each other for excellence and teamwork. This can be done with a “gratitude board” in the break room, or by providing small gifts like Pizza Gift Certificates to employees to give one another.
7. Recognize with gratitude, not cash. A sincere expression of appreciation, accompanied by a meaningful gift, is more memorable and has greater impact than a cash bonus.

Inspiration and Tools for Year-Round Employee Recognition

Keep your inspiration and energy for recognizing blue-collar and all employees fresh with ideas and tools for building an everyday culture of appreciation. Download our annual guide, “Day-to-Day Employee Celebration Calendar” and learn easy, affordable ways to celebrate your workplace month by month.
Be inspired! Download your one-of-a-kind ebook today, absolutely free.
“In life, one has a choice to take one of two paths: to wait for some special day — or to celebrate each special day.” -Rasheed Ogunlaru, coach and author

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