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the future of work

Owing to an administrative strike by teachers at several Ontario school boards, my son will likely be among the students receiving a bare-bones report card next week. Personally, I couldn't be happier for him. I recall the tremendous anxiety surrounding grades, which we are somehow trained to believe will determine our future success. "A" students get ahead and "C" students don't. Fast forward 20 years and I know this not to be true.

For decades, though, the theory has been that top students get into the best universities and land white-collar jobs while the rest are forced to endure, at best, a vocational program at a community college to secure blue-collar roles. But the dividing line between these two collars has grown frayed over the years and it's about time we move to a no-collar worker philosophy.

It's one of the main themes in a new book called America's Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age. The book's authors – it was jointly written by members of the Markle Foundation, a group of chief executive officers, technologists and educators, including LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and Starbucks' Howard Schultz – see a change in the employment market unlike anything since the Industrial Revolution.

This transformation to a digital economy, while exciting, puts jobs at risk and threatens to limit opportunities for all but a select few. Part of their prescription includes transitioning to a "no-collar world." That means getting rid of the old system of grading talent.

"The divide between blue-collar and white-collar needs to break down if we can create a labour market for the skills needed for the job," said Zoe Baird, CEO and president of the Markle Foundation.

She cites an example in the book of IT workers, where a typical entry-level role may include working at a help desk, which garners an average salary in New York of about $66,000 (U.S.). These roles require certain skills but not necessarily the ones associated with a bachelor of arts degree. That help desk job could then lead to roles in network support, which carries an average annual salary of about $80,000 and then to a database administrator, with an even higher salary. While these roles require different skills to advance, none or few are gleaned through a degree program. Despite this, employers looking for an entry-level IT employee usually require that prospective employees have a bachelor's degree, for no other reason than it's one of the few quick filters available for human resources departments, a practice called "up-credentialing" in HR-speak.

This emphasis on credentials creates confusion in the employment market, where employers struggle to "signal" what skills they need and current credentials don't accurately portray what people know.

The book calls for several measures, reiterated by Ms. Baird, suggesting that companies should better define the skills they need and adopt a broader, more flexible system of credentials when posting job vacancies. As a society, we also need to reverse this modern trend of disconnecting academic from technical postsecondary skills. In other words, recognize the skills people have rather than their diplomas.

Philip Zelikow, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, one of the book's co-authors, argues that erasing the line between blue and white-collar culture opens up opportunities. He said when you ask young people if they want to go into manufacturing, they say no, since it's perceived as blue-collar. But ask them if they want to work in aerospace, and they say yes, adding that in Houston, machinists get paid more than those jobs requiring a PhD. "You have more lines of code in a Chevy than in a Boeing 747," he quipped in an interview.

This not only opens opportunities for employees but employers. "It hasn't served companies well to use diplomas as the gatekeepers," Ms. Baird said.

"We think there is a real interest on the part of employers in getting a larger pool of good applicants … and to enable people to have more granular categories of skills to have something they can choose from," she said.

As an example of new approaches that can be embraced by other industries, Ms. Baird cites the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electronic Contractors Association (NECA), which created an alliance that relies on apprenticeships, blended learning programs, online education and personal coaching, so that workers can earn recognized credentials.

The relative absence of such collaborative approaches, the book argues, hurts the middle-skill work force.

"Technology and globalization are changing everything," Ms. Baird said. "We want to use technology and globalization to be the masters of the new economy, not the victim," she added.

So instead of lamenting the abridged version of my son's report card this year, I'm happy to shrug it off and hope that the time he spends playing the programming game Scratch will evolve into opportunities we can't even imagine today with our ingrained blue-collar/white-collar vision.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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