Engaging the other end of the workforce spectrum – Blue Collar Employees

The business and HR leadership are still decoding the engagement mystery, as reported by multiple surveys. While a lot is being said and done about improving engagement levels of white collar employees, the other end of the spectrum, the blue collar is still waiting to see the light of the day.

A  Gallup poll in August 2013 found that only 23 percent of blue-collar workers were satisfied with their employers’ retirement plans, which acts as a traditional engagement tool for this stratum of a workforce. Blue-collar workers were also unhappy with job stress and wages — only 30 and 33 percent, respectively, were satisfied with these two work issues.

Who are Blue collar employees and why are they significant:

Blue collar workers refer to people who perform manual labor, categorized into unskilled, semi-skilled or skilled labor based on nature of operation they perform. They not only form the backbone of labor-intensive industries but also of our economy.

India has long been identified as a nation with cheap labor and MNCs have enjoyed this cost arbitrage but this scenario is gradually changing. 90% industries have stated acute labor shortage and observed that with access to education systems, government schemes like MNERGA it is becoming increasingly difficult to mobilize resources to join industries at worker level thus impacting production and revenues.

Besides these external factors, there are some internal ones as well, which are aggravating the engagement issue for blue collar employees. Factors like high wage disparity, very controlled or hazardous working conditions, monotonous and physically exhausting work with no focus on up gradation or growth, leads to low job satisfaction and high disengagement.

Disengagement of this layer is far more damaging and is visible by the circumstantial evidence in the past where organizations like Honda, Nokia, Maruti had to face the adverse effects of labour unrest. But there are enough examples where organizations have gone ahead in defining engagement differently and reaped huge benefits.

Thus companies need to change the way they treat blue collar workers and look for newer avenues or reform the old ones to drive meaningful engagement.

So how can they be engaged and made more productive?

  1. Understanding of this stratum’s engagement driver: It starts with a demographic study of this layer which throws a lot of information related to their lifestyle, expenses, family requirements, affiliations, social needs and intrinsic motivations.For example, a research stated that this group places a high value on relationships with co-workers, with 72% workers reporting this to be the most satisfying part of the job. This attribute can be used to design the job in such a way that it provides more interfaces with others and helps them build camaraderie.They also value family experiences which are still catered by Diwali Mela, Vishwakarma Puja etc but the need of the hour is to gift them new and varied experiences.
  2. Rewards & Recognition to be more inclusive and linked to direct monetization: Blue-collar workers are employees and are no different in their desires to be respected and valued. No wonder long service awards and loyalty programs are seen as prestigious rewarding mechanism playing on the “izzat” factor. Organizations can build more inclusive R&R platforms, where they get evaluated and appreciated in the same league as managerial employees. Or introduce platforms which provide them more visibility in the organization or give them the option to monetize the reward points and redeem them for  a variety of options. Not to forget that money acts as a strong motivator for them.
  3. Development Focus – Up-skilling and development is another pocket where engagement can be built. Many organizations are now investing in the higher education of the high performing employees and promoting them to the supervisory cadre. HUL has launched Step into One (SiO) pioneer program to motivate and prepare the high potential shop-floor employees and staff for the next role in Officer Cadre. SiO places the responsibility for career growth of shop-floor employees and staff on the line manager, HRBP, and the individual. There are programs where skilled labour is being turned into trainers and subject matter experts. These interventions give them a sense of self-worth, job security, and higher job satisfaction.
  4. Health & Well being– Surveys show that this group reports a high level of stress and health ailments mostly due to working conditions, financial constraints, and lifestyle habits. Organizations can focus on introducing health and well-being programs beyond annual medical check up or on campus doctor facility. Some companies have run programs for up-skilling spouses of workers to enable them to have alternate sources of income to contribute to the family income and improve the standard of living. While others have grappled with the issue of alcohol consumption by running counseling and rehab programs, thus countering chronic absenteeism indiscipline and loss of productivity.

I wish to reinstate the fact that it is near to impossible for companies to achieve growth and profitability they have envisaged for themselves by investing only in 40% of the employee population(supervisory & above grades) and it is about time that a different engagement platform is offered even to blue collar employees.

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