End the Stigma Against Blue Collar Jobs to Rebalance the UK and US Labor Markets

two construction workers look at a laptop

Like the US, the UK suffers from a shortage of service, industry, and trade workers. Immigration provides some much-needed labor, but are there other ways to fill those half-million vacancies?

Officially, 4.3 percent of people in the UK are unemployed—about 1.4 million adults. They’re competing for 898,000 job vacancies that need to be filled. This translates to roughly 1.6 unemployed people for every job opening, so the scales should be tilted in the employer’s favor.

Why aren’t they?

One factor is the severe mismatch of talent available versus the jobs that need to be done. The UK is looking for workers for their assembly lines, delivery fleets, warehouses, and construction sites, yet job seekers are primarily degree-educated professionals.

The cultural stigma around traditional blue-collar jobs could be partly to blame.

Where have all the workers gone?

Traditionally, in the UK, immigration filled the gap for labor shortages in unskilled and semi-skilled roles.

Before 2021, free movement rules gave EU citizens the right to live and work in the UK without requiring permission. From fruit pickers to bricklayers, Eastern Europeans from Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria entered the UK in their millions and bolstered the workforce for these jobs.

Post-Brexit, this source of labor has largely dried up. Since free movement ended on 31 December 2021, Britain has experienced a shortfall of an estimated 330,000 workers, almost all in lower-skilled sectors. Transport, wholesale, retail, manufacturing, construction, and hospitality have suffered the biggest manpower shortfalls. Although there has been an increase in migration by non-EU nationals since Brexit, this has not been sufficient to meet labor market demands and has done very little to fill lower-skilled vacancies.

The challenges will feel familiar for US employers who are watching their British cousins scramble to fill frontline roles. The US has its problems with immigration, including a visa system skewed towards educated knowledge workers. And that has a whole bunch of unintended consequences. The country brings in international students and educates them, but they face hurdles in staying in the US to work. This is especially true in fields like medicine, leading to a brain drain where talented doctors go back home instead of completing their residencies in the United States and contributing to the US workforce.

The UK faces similar issues with extra complications. The tight salary limitations of the universal healthcare system make it financially challenging for healthcare workers—who are not blue-collar but who are also in short supply—to stay and work in the UK. The result is a chasm between what the UK needs regarding workers and what it is currently getting.

The Stigma Around Blue-Collar Work

Healthcare is just one microcosm where employers can’t find the people they need. Other sectors, such as construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and food service, are also struggling to find workers, and neither young Brits nor young Americans seem to want this work.

According to the Office of National Statistics, in February 2024, 13 percent of young adults between 16 and 24 years old, excluding students, were unemployed in the UK, up from 11.6 percent the year before. That’s around 540,000 young people.

In the US, the comparable rate is 8.2 percent as of April 2024.

With so many industries complaining about a shortage of workers, why aren’t younger job seekers clamoring to fill these roles? One possible answer is that they’re tainted by undeserved stigma.

This is not entirely Gen Z’s fault. While TikTok may be full of “lazy girl” jobs and “Minimum Effort Mondays,” the truth is that they’ve been subjected to a barrage of propaganda about blue collar jobs. Parents and educators constantly push high schoolers to pursue careers they deem respectable, such as medicine or the law, while ignoring jobs like factory worker, janitor, or train operator. Even the term “blue collar” conjures images of physically exhausting “dirty” labor that requires little skill or intelligence, although that’s patently untrue.

For employers who are desperate to fill their jobs with a new generation of workers, there’s a lot of baggage to unpack before they can sell the blue-collar dream.

Employers Have Stigmas, Too

This isn’t an exclusively supply-side problem; employers have a role to play in rebalancing the labor market.

On both sides of the Atlantic, veterans, homeless people, and prison leavers are often out of work due to a mix of stigma and circumstance. It’s estimated that one in six adults in the UK has a criminal conviction, but a recent report from the Chartered Institute of Building found that 32 percent of hiring managers would exclude any candidate with a criminal record regardless of their skills.

Similar stigmas exist around mental health, substance abuse, and people with disabilities, and it’s keeping millions of people out of work. Tapping into these groups could go a long way toward solving the chronic labor shortages in certain sectors.

Change may be coming as an increasing number of organizations are launching programs to recruit from groups facing particular employment barriers. However, this will require employers to be more open-minded in the type of candidates they seek to attract and to invest in training programs and support for these individuals instead of rejecting anyone who is not job-ready.

One thing’s for sure: technology alone isn’t enough to solve the problem. Organizations can’t “tech” their way out of labor shortages when (at least for now) many vital roles still require humans to execute them.

If anything, AI is going to exacerbate the issue, automating knowledge-based tasks and making more white-collar jobs redundant, at least in the short term.

How do we Rebalance the Labor Market?

There’s no simple answer to this complex problem. Immigration policy, the economy, wage standards, welfare and benefits systems, technology, and education systems all have a role to play.

What we can do is try to change the narrative around lower-skilled jobs and the type of people who can do them. Many young people don’t understand how high the pay is for many deskless vocational tech jobs, compared to regional medians, or how much weight a £45,000 or £250,000 student loan balance can have on their life.

More importantly, blue-collar workers have higher employment and job security levels, at least right now.

Employers need to shift their focus from skills possession to skills development, and companies need to be more open-minded when considering candidates. There is a wealth of untapped talent; all it takes is a willingness to look past outdated stereotypes and stigma. Both sides may have dug a hole with their current mindset; the future is a matter of course correction and catching up.