March 19, 2024

How ‘New Collar’ Workers Can Address GenAI Skills Gap

Practically overnight, generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) has seemingly gone from sci-fi fantasy to business reality. And companies are scrambling to adapt their hiring practices to this seismic shift. Want proof? Demand for GenAI skills has increased by an astronomical 1,848% in the past year. 

What is the New Collar Workforce?

While AI is not a new business practice, the power of creating technologies built on GenAI is new (and uncharted in many ways). This has become a mainstream business debate that’s furiously pushing employers to secure talent with the specialized AI skills to use these systems.

Traditional academic degree requirements are being set aside as hiring managers look to a class of “new collar” technologists whose expertise is forged outside of two- and four-year degree programs. Beyond internal training investments and skills development programs, these previously overlooked candidates represent companies’ quickest path to acquiring workers with the know-how for tapping into GenAI's transformative potential before their competitors beat them to it.

Research on Gen AI & New Collar Workers

New data from a Cengage Group survey indicates that the increased interest in hiring new collar workers is more than a passing trend. Rather, it represents a systemic shift in the way the future workforce will take shape. In short, the need for generative AI expertise is changing conventional wisdom in how we recruit, interview and hire tech talent, leaning into candidates with the right skills and competencies needed to work with AI and machine learning, no matter where they learned them.

The Era of the New Collar Worker survey polled 700 tech hiring managers and decision-makers in the U.S. Its goal was to explore whether employers were considering unconventional candidates for AI roles, the impact of these employees on their organizations and how hiring practices are evolving due to AI’s rapid rise. The findings provide a snapshot of just how dramatically AI is upending traditional hiring practices.

The Era of New Collar Worker Findings

Two-thirds (68%) of decision-makers expect to create new roles to facilitate their company’s use of AI. More than half (59%) have already onboarded new collar workers over the past year, with 55% saying these workers were hired to support new AI initiatives.


Three in five (63%) hiring managers plan to develop skills-based hiring strategies to support their companies’ AI objectives. Nearly as many (61%) said they will expand internal training and upskilling initiatives for existing employees to gain AI skills, while 55% plan to create apprenticeship or training programs to reskill workers to address their AI-related talent needs. 

Three-quarters (73%) of respondents currently focus on recruiting and interviewing candidates with on-the-job AI experience. Previous work experience (35%) was cited as the most important indicator that a candidate has the skills required to succeed in a role, followed by the courses they’ve taken in a related field (24%) and apprenticeship programs in a similar position (23%). Fewer than a fifth (18%) of respondents cited a two- or four-year academic degree as the most significant predictor of success.


The good news is that two-thirds (68%) of respondents say new collar workers are positive additions to the team and have improved the organization’s tech capabilities. Specifically, new collar workers have helped restructure their employer’s recruitment strategy (66%), connected HR and hiring managers to more diverse talent pipelines (61%) and onboarded relatively quickly with little training (45%).

While more than half (55%) of employers already evaluate candidates on their credentials or completed course work, just as many (51%) admit they don’t know which courses, credentials or programs are legitimate, which means there is still work to be done in determining how to assess new collar talent. This can include instituting a formal review system and credentials check to ensure the candidate has completed stated coursework.


The Future of the New Collar Worker

Just a few years ago, advanced AI solutions seemed like an alternative reality. But today, powerful tools like GenAI are a standard part of doing business. While companies are struggling to find tech talent with AI skills, the survey results make clear that the shortage of AI-ready new collar workers is driving major changes in how businesses approach hiring.

As employers look to address talent gaps, new collar technologists who have developed critical AI skills through alternative paths like short-term courses, apprenticeships and on-the-job training are an increasingly valuable talent asset. By tapping into non-traditional candidates, companies expand their ability to build AI-capable teams ahead of their competitors. As AI continues to shift from fantasy to reality across every industry, uniquely skilled new collar workers will remain in high demand and have the potential to positively disrupt the workforce.


The Era of the New Collar Worker survey was fielded in February 2024 to a sample of 700 hiring decision-makers based in the United States.