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How to Recruit for Hard-to-Fill Blue-Collar Positions

A worker is working in a factory with pipes.

​In a time when more people are going to college and pursuing white-collar jobs after graduation, employers are having difficulty overcoming a shortage of blue-collar workers. From construction to food service to IT customer service, jobs are going unfilled, with no signs of an improving situation this year.

"These industries have more unfilled job openings than unemployed workers with experience in their respective industry," according to new research from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There are also widespread shortages of hourly workers in the wholesale and retail trade as well as durable goods manufacturing industries. Even if every single person who has the skills to work in the durable goods manufacturing industry had a job, the industry would only fill 44 percent of the vacancies, the report found.

In response to these shortages, HR professionals are trying new tactics to recruit and retain blue-collar workers. Here are some examples:

Recruit Early On

At Transwestern, a commercial real estate agency with 2,100 employees headquartered in Houston, recruiting for blue-collar positions has become extremely challenging.

"The demand to hire skilled workers has outpaced the supply of people in an extremely competitive market, making it more difficult to recruit for building engineering positions," said Adair Bryan, Transwestern's recruitment director.

One tactic she says is paying dividends is connecting with high schools to recruit potential employees before they graduate. "We speak with high school students about careers in building engineering and property management," she said, "and we have created apprenticeship opportunities for students at trade schools."

Contacting students as they're considering future career paths prompts some to defer college and select a career that may lead to exactly what they seek without the expense of additional education. "It helps them understand that they have options," Bryan said.

Fish Where the Fish Are

Blue-collar workers might not be searching for jobs in the same places as white-collar job hunters, so it's important for companies seeking blue-collar workers to be visible in those places, said Eric Mochnacz, SHRM-SCP, director of operations at Red Clover, an HR consulting firm based in Butler, N.J.  

"We identified where we believed skilled trades workers, traditionally referred to as blue collar, were searching for jobs," said Mochnacz, who works with a team of seven other employees to recruit for construction industry clients. "They most likely weren't looking on LinkedIn, but rather on Indeed and Craigslist. So that's where we centered our search."

Mochnacz also found that skilled tradespeople were less likely to have a formal resume, so he took steps to make their application process easier.

"Rather than expect a resume, I would review the information they submitted and look for keywords pertaining to commercial roofing, and also review their previous work experience," he explained. "We put greater emphasis on the phone screen, to really get to know the applicants and confirm they know how to work with specific tools, materials and software programs related to commercial roofing."

Create Marketing Content

Many blue-collar workers have misconceptions about what opportunities they might qualify for and where. A good marketing strategy can help dispel those while bringing new employees into the fold, said Anne Wittenborg, director of employer marketing and employee experience at Marvin, a window and door manufacturer based in Warroad, Minn.

To attract blue-collar workers, her team creates marketing content about their open positions and flips the script on traditional perceptions of those roles.

"The days of standing on a line doing repetitive tasks in less-than-ideal conditions are long gone," she said. "To counter that, we developed a storytelling strategy to show what it's like to work in manufacturing today. At Marvin, team members are in a clean, bright, temperature-controlled, safe environment with great modern amenities, surrounded by advanced technology."

On Marvin's social media channels, Wittenborg's team shares images as well as videos of some of the company's more than 7,000 employees talking about why they like working there.

"Watch any of our employee testimonials on YouTube, and you can see and feel what it's like to work in manufacturing at Marvin," Wittenborg said, which makes these videos a great recruiting tool.

Transwestern also invests in marketing content to attract blue-collar workers, including a company-hosted video contest showcasing the workday and life of a building engineer.

"Several building engineers submitted videos that shared touching stories about their jobs and why they work for Transwestern," Bryan said. "We posted the videos on our social media pages with the goal to bring awareness to the profession."

Start a Paid Referral Program

At Marvin, HR fills many positions with the help of employee referrals, which often prove to be a win-win for employees and the company.

"We've seen year after year, our employees are some of our best and most active brand ambassadors," Wittenborg said. "That's why we formalized our referral program to focus on direct labor hiring initiatives."

If an employee refers a full-time or part-time employee who stays at the company for at least six months, the referring employee receives a $1,000 bonus, which incentivizes team members to always be on the lookout for new recruits.

"Employees can repeatedly earn this bonus for each referral, which can add up fast," said Wittenborg. "Retention rates are also improved with referred hires. All of this cultivates an environment where employees feel appreciated and have a role in who they work with at Marvin."

Offer Excellent Benefits

Providing good pay is a start. But when workers are faced with higher costs of living, offering excellent benefits is also necessary, especially for any blue-collar workers who might not be earning a high salary, Wittenborg said.

"How we care and support our people is a differentiator for us, one we often highlight in our recruiting efforts," she explained. "Benefits start on your first day of employment. We also provide pay for experience, profit sharing and scheduling flexibility not often found in manufacturing facilities."

Mochnacz said he recruits for companies that also provide competitive benefits—and he makes sure to communicate that upfront. 

"When conducting interviews, when I explain to candidates that the company offers health benefits, that they would be paid bi-weekly and that there is a formal paid-time-off policy, they all seem a bit shocked," he said. "[This is] mainly because some of their experiences in the industry were 'fly by night' operations where they would do work and never get paid."

Adopting such a formal recruitment process usually convinces blue-collar applicants that the company is professional and serious about hiring them, according to Mochnacz.

"In some of their past experiences, these processes didn't exist," he said. "Our process treated them as the legitimate professionals they are, and that goes a long way in being able to bring them onto the team. It gave them confidence they were interviewing at a company that had its act together, and that did a lot for its local and regional reputation, as well as its reputation in the industry."

Leveraging recruiting tactics that are aimed specifically at blue-collar workers is the key to success, Mochnacz added.

"Not everyone is meant to attend college," he said. "Trade school and apprenticeship programs may be the more effective and productive path for them. We need to celebrate and support that and create HR systems that allow individuals to be successful in trade industries."

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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