Everyone’s heard of white collar and blue collar jobs. But what about new collar jobs?
The term was coined several years ago to describe jobs that require the technical skills to run automated machines and software. In the manufacturing sector, new collar jobs involve programming and managing industrial robots, or cobots—special robots designed to work alongside humans.
New collar manufacturing jobs are growing quickly as more companies adopt automated production practices, changing the nature of manufacturing itself. Today’s high-tech factories are no longer dark, dirty, dangerous places.
“The perception of manufacturing has to change,” says Craig Van den Avont, president at GAM Enterprises. “Factories are bright and a completely different environment than the old stereotype.” GAM manufacturers precision components for factory automation. The Mount Prospect-based company employs skilled workers to manage cobots that perform repetitive tasks.
Amid a general labor shortage, companies are struggling to fill new collar jobs. “Manufacturing has a major skills gap,” says David Boulay, president at the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center (IMEC), a provider of technical assistance and resources for manufacturers. “There are so many job openings.”
More workers are needed at the intersection of technology and automation, or what’s called mechatronics, according to Mark Denzler, president and CEO at the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. “Today’s manufacturing jobs require different training and a different skill set.”
A new career path
New collar workers typically don’t have a four-year college degree. Instead, they’re trained at community colleges, vocational schools, and on-the-job apprenticeships. Because new collar workers are in such short supply, the robot manufacturer may train workers how to run the machines at the factory.
Like a lot of manufacturers, GAM Enterprises trains many of its new-collar workers on-site. The company has had the most success recruiting high school graduates who have taken classes in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM courses. “Not everyone wants to be an engineer,” Van den Avont says. Along with a STEM background, he looks for people who want to work with their hands. “Those are the ones who do well,” he says.
New hires at GAM start by learning basic software programming duties, instructing the cobots to perform certain tasks. Some cobots are simple to program like playing a video game. While workers are building their skills on the job, they’re encouraged to take classes at a community college to further their knowledge of automation.
Community colleges now offer classes for students interested in new collar jobs. The College of DuPage, for example, has degrees and certificates in manufacturing technology, mechatronics, and other automated processes. These include a much-needed skill called computer numerical control (CNC) machining, where the operator uses computer software to control the movements of factory tools and machines.
In 2022, the College of Lake County, a community college, will open its Advanced Technology Center in Gurnee. The 142,000-square-foot space will allow the college to expand three of its current manufacturing-focused programs, including automation, robotics and mechatronics, CNC and welding. The high demand program of industrial maintenance will also be added.