Workers’ Day report: how the pandemic impacted blue-collar workers in SA and globally

Workers’ Day, observed on 1 May, is a global celebration of workers’ rights, in particular those of blue-collar workers. This year, we’re marking it by taking a look at how the pandemic and its associated lockdowns affected this vital section of the workforce.

Given that blue-collar workers are the individuals who drive many an organisation’s success, it is essential to understand the nuances of this workforce as the economy emerges from restrictions and businesses resume full activity. Companies may need to reconsider ways of hiring, managing and retaining their blue-collar staff.

How the pandemic affected South African blue-collar workers

The South African labour market is plagued by high levels of unemployment even at the best of times. Weak economic growth and resulting retrenchments over the past two years have done nothing to improve the situation. Low-wage workers suffered almost four times more job losses than high-wage earners, according to a World Bank economic analysis for South Africa, meaning the number of blue-collar jobseekers has seen a surge in the past few months.

‘Blue-collar workers have been hard-hit by the pandemic and make up a large chunk of South Africa’s jobseeking community,’ says Jesse Green of online job aggregator Adzuna. ‘Enquiries for apprentice roles have increased dramatically. Possibly, this is due to the fact that many of these individuals lost their entry-level placements during the peak of the pandemic and are now looking to secure more permanent employment again.’

South Africa needs to address three chronic labour-market challenges in order to generate employment, says World Bank Country Director for South Africa Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly. These challenges are:

  • Extremely high rates of inactivity
  • High rates of unemployment
  • Low levels of self-employment.

The global impact of Covid-19 on blue-collar workers

While South Africa continues its battle to increase blue-collar employment opportunities, the opposite holds true abroad.

In the USA, the biggest post-pandemic wage boom is reported to be blue collar, yet there is difficulty in filling these positions. This trend actually predates the pandemic, but the lockdowns of the past two years have exacerbated the problem.

Blue-collar workers were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. While their white-collar counterparts pivoted to safe, remote-working set-ups, blue-collar workers did not enjoy the same privilege. Many had to put their health at risk by continuing to work in-person (such is the nature of their industry), and many lost their jobs as a result of economic restrictions.

This status quo has resulted in blue-collar workers either demanding more flexibility or, more significantly, seeking a career change. A recent study showed that the desire to work flexibility was the key motivation behind blue-collar workers changing their careers.

In addition to increased wage and flexibility demands, the global industry is also seeing a steady decline of workers willing to do hands-on labour. ‘Most of the young generation that is replacing [retiring Baby Boomers] is more educated and less willing to work in those types of jobs,’ says Gad Levanon, head of the Labor Market Institute at The Conference Board.

This generational shift may point to a need to redefine what blue-collar work entails…

A new blue-collar workforce

Factory workers and labourers were the workforce that powered the Industrial Revolution, but a new skill set is required to power the current technological revolution: coding.

Coders are key to tech advancement. While the current blue-collar workforce is typically made up of semi-skilled or unskilled workers, trends suggest that a significant portion of this workforce will soon be technically skilled in coding.

Coding is currently viewed as a skilled position, but local and global education departments are introducing coding into the schooling curriculum to ensure it becomes a basic skill for scholars.

Shifting the perspective to making coding accessible across all socio-economic sectors holds massive potential to expand employment opportunities and economic growth.

We may well be seeing a blue-collar workforce wielding laptops, not heavy machinery, in the not-too-distant future.

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