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Across the last two decades, every content-driven industry in our economy, from music to movies to books to…
Despite the anachronism of the terms “white collar“ and “blue collar”, they are still commonly used to describe job market dynamics. At the beginning of the year, many media outlets focused heavily on economic dynamics impacting white-collar industries and workers. But while the white-collar layoffs were a large component of the conversation, they were not a large segment of the U.S. job market; many of the layoffs were a result of the renormalization of the economy post-pandemic.
Regardless, we saw a different trend in Q1 – an uptick in company initiatives and investor dollars oriented toward upskilling and job placement for blue-collar workers. Below, we explore the key trends, changing perceptions, and notable investments impacting the future of blue-collar work.
While white-collar job loss has been a trending topic, less mainstream media coverage focused on the persistent gap in blue-collar hiring. For example, the durable goods manufacturing industry has more unfilled job openings than unemployed workers with experience. In fact, even if every unemployed person with experience in the durable goods manufacturing were employed, the industry would only fill roughly 30% of the vacant jobs. For blue-collar employers searching for employees, two main factors are complicating their search.
By and large, America believes the best path to prestige and financial reward is through a white-collar job. This dynamic leaves blue-collar industries facing serious perception challenges. In addition to Americans getting older and leaving work behind, this image problem continues to widen the blue-collar hiring gap.
Employers tend to demand that their blue-collar workers already have several years of experience to land a job, but many are not willing to invest in programs that give young adults the required skillsets. Likewise, America cut back on vocational education programs starting a generation ago and union apprenticeship programs have declined alongside union membership.
This has left community colleges as key providers of skilled trade and vocational programs. However, the number of students enrolled in vocational programs at community colleges dropped by double digits during the height of the pandemic.
Despite these obstacles, recent trends point to narrowing gaps for blue-collar jobs and skills. Higher demand, better pay, and growing doubts about a four-year degree are drawing students to skilled trades and vocational programs. Community colleges, which were hit particularly hard by the pandemic, saw freshman enrollment increases of 42,000 students (+6.1%) over fall 2019. And not only is enrollment rebounding at community colleges, but the focus is shifting towards vocational programs.
Moreover, there are ~30 million jobs in the U.S. that pay an average of $55,000 per year and do not require bachelor’s degrees. While the wage gap between students who earn bachelor’s degrees and those who do not reached a record high in 2022, pre- and post-pandemic data indicates blue-collar wages are growing at a faster rate than wages for white-collar jobs. This reverses a trend that had been in place for the past 30 years.
Recognizing these tailwinds of changing perceptions and pay differentials, market stakeholders are making moves. We have highlighted below one established company and three emerging providers as illustrative examples of how opportunities in this blue-collar environment are evolving.
In early March, the Lowe’s Foundation launched its Gable Grants program with a $50 million commitment over the next five years to prepare 50,000 people for skilled-trade careers. The foundation will run two separate grant cohorts: one focused on innovative skilled trades programs for post-secondary adults via community and technical colleges, and another supporting community-based nonprofits.
Fynn is a fintech lender aiming to provide students with affordable loans to attend qualifying trade schools. It announced the close of an $11 million seed round and $25 million debt facility in early March with Y Combinator, Susa Ventures, Village Global, Tenacity Venture Capital, and Watchfire Ventures as investors. Federal financial aid is extremely limited or non-existent at trade schools, and Fynn is aiming to fill that void while closing the blue-collar hiring and skills gaps.
Skillit is a recruiting platform for skilled, full-time construction labor. The company recently announced a $5.1M seed round led by Building Ventures with participation from MetaProp, HOLT Ventures, Great North Ventures, 1Sharpe Ventures, and Takeoff Capital. Skillit operates by vetting workers via trade-specific assessments, then provides potential employers with relevant talent insights related to compensation, training, and retention.
In late February, LaborWorx, a tech-enabled staffing startup that helps construction and manufacturing companies connect with on-demand workers, raised $4.2 million. LaborWorx prides itself on being one of the first labor marketplaces created for skilled workers by skilled workers. Their platform connects understaffed companies with certified candidates based on skill, location, rate, and availability.
We will be tracking which stakeholders are providing these skill-building opportunities and developing innovative solutions to close blue-collar hiring gaps. We encourage you to do the same and welcome the opportunity to help you navigate these dynamics to support your growth and investment strategies.
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