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The New Workforce Revolution Is Here

April 6, 2022, Tom Erb

Tom Erb is back! Here, the staffing and recruiting expert explains how American workplace culture went from a 7-day, 100-hour week to a 5-day, 40-hour week…to where we are now.

The Industrial Revolution—or revolutions, to be exact—is officially over. The first wave began in the mid-1700s, and had a profound impact not just on how we work, but on society as a whole.  Beginning with the invention of the steam engine, Europe and America experienced a wave of new technologies that allowed for mass manufacturing of products. This resulted in most of the workforce moving from working outside, in agriculture, to inside, laboring in factories. It also meant that much of the population moved from the country to the cities to find manufacturing work. The first Industrial Revolution introduced a more structured workweek with set hours. In many cases that meant 12- to 14-hour workdays, seven days a week. 

The second Industrial Revolution, and the period following, did even more to shape the way that most of us work today. Starting in the late 1800s and extending into the early 20th century, this period saw rapid growth primarily due to the inventions of electricity and the telephone. This allowed for rapid expansion across the United States, electrification of machinery, factories, and cities, and greater economic globalization. Employees were still working a massive number of hours. In 1890, the US government conducted a study that showed the average workweek for a full-time manufacturing employee was 100 hours.

The modern work schedule was first introduced around the turn of the 20th century, with several pieces of legislation establishing 8-hour workdays for some government workers. In the early 1900s, private companies started adopting 5-day workweeks, the most famous of which was Ford Motor Company. In 1926, Ford moved to a standard 5-day, 40-hour workweek. Nearly 100 years later, most full-time positions in the US still follow this schedule. 

However, how people WANT to work is rapidly changing. Workers want more flexibility. More variety. More work-life balance (except they really mean it this time). Employees are quitting their jobs in record numbers, and without another job lined up. Many workers are opting for part-time or gig jobs instead of full-time positions. People are not only more comfortable with uncertainty in their employment situation, but many crave it. 

This seismic shift in worker attitude is what we have been hoping for in the staffing industry for decades. One of the biggest challenges we have faced over the years is that most workers desired stability. They weren’t going to leave a full-time job for a contract position. They didn’t want that short-term or part-time position. For those who were unemployed, a staffing assignment was just a bridge to get back to full-time employment. 

But now we can be a highly desirable option for workers. Not just as a short-term interim step between “permanent” jobs, but as a long-term employment arrangement that complements their lifestyle. If we consistently provide attractive, flexible work opportunities for our employees, we can expand our relationship from days or weeks to years or even decades.

We can’t do it with our current model. Most of the industry has adopted that same rigid 40-hour workweek that our clients follow – a model that as we know was created almost one hundred years ago. So how do we adapt? Here are a few ways to provide employees with the flexibility they are demanding. 

  1. Break up the 40-hour workweek. You need work done, whether that entails direct animal care, building financial reports, or writing code. But do you really need the same person to do it Monday thru Friday 8-5? Does it matter how many hours, or what hours, each person works per day? Can I provide 4 or 5 different people to fill those 40 hours? Many industries and professions, including healthcare, call centers, fast food, and retail, have successfully operated on scheduling per shift or block. 
  2. Go remote. The pandemic showed millions of employers and employees that work can not only be done remotely, but that working remotely is desirable. According to LinkedIn, candidates are 2 ½ times as likely to apply to a remote job as one in person. Prior to the pandemic, one in 67 jobs were virtual. Now, that number is one in 7! Of course, not all positions can be done remotely (such as assembly workers), but many can. Determine what truly needs to be done in person, and what could be done remotely. Even partially virtual positions are more attractive to most candidates than 100% in-person.
  3. Ramp up your benefits. As more workers are looking at non-traditional income streams, benefits become even more valuable. Revisit your benefit programs, such as healthcare and paid time off. Evaluate what it would take financially to offer benefit programs to part-time workers. And consider incentive programs that reward employees for working more hours with you. 

Just as we look back at the different waves of the Industrial Rvolution, future generations will view what is happening right now with the workforce as a transformational period in history. The staffing profession has an amazing opportunity to be at the forefront of this new revolution. 

For more on the state of the animal welfare workforce, read about The Association’s 2021 Compensation & Benefits Survey.

More from Tom

Webinar recording: The Future of Talent Acquisition & Retention
Tip of the Week: It’s Not About You

Photo: Surface/Unsplash

About Tom Erb
Tom Erb, president of Tallann Resources, is one of the most highly sought-after national speakers in staffing and recruiting. He presents to a variety of organizations, including the American Staffing Association, National Association of Personnel Services, Ohio HR Conference, and dozens of others. Tom is the author of Winning the Staffing Sales Game and currently writes the monthly Recruiting Today column for ASA’s Staffing Success magazine. HR Examiner named Tom one of the Top 25 Online Influencers in Staffing.

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