What Jobs Matter During the COVID-19 Crisis?

When I teach introductory courses in I-O psychology or human resources management, I like to ask my students to describe their dream jobs. As you might expect, they typically name high-status, white-collar professions such as doctor, lawyer, or CEO. These are the same kinds of jobs that I-O and human resources professionals typically discuss when they write about the future of work. (If blue collar jobs are mentioned in these pieces at all, it’s usually to point out they soon won’t exist.)

But the COVID-19 crisis has turned things upside down. Many of the most important jobs right now are decidedly blue. Traditional blue-collar workers in grocery stores, post offices, warehouses, and sanitation facilities stand alongside doctors and nurses in the frontlines of this global pandemic. Increasingly, they’re being joined by delivery drivers and other blue-tinged gig workers. Long-criticized migrant workers are the core of our food supply chain. They’re called “essential workers” or “employees of life-sustaining businesses.” In other words, the present crisis has made us aware of something we should have known all along: these workers, and their work, are valuable.

Just as we’re becoming aware of the importance of blue-collar workers, we’re also seeing clearly the dangers they face. While most white-collar workers can work from home, those who work in retail, sanitation, and cleaning roles are out in the world, often without protection.

In a world that historically places less value on blue collar workers, how can we pivot now to support them? I have spoken to so many HR professionals that want to help their employees but seem hamstrung by systemic issues beyond their control. I-O psychologists and human resources scholars, too, seem to struggle to conceptualize this systemic power imbalance.

While it may be comforting to imagine that everything will be back to normal soon, I don’t think we want to go back to business as usual. Prognosticators have already begun to guess about what our new normal will look like. Before the COVID-19 crisis, for example, “work from home” was limited, but now we know that many knowledge workers can work from home effectively. How many other “truths” of the workplace have been shifted to accommodate our new reality? How many jobs can now offer flextime and maternity/paternity leave now that we know what we can accomplish through digital work?

But most of these predictions fit comfortably with our pre-pandemic focus on white collar jobs. The COVID-19 crisis is truly horrible, but as long as we’re imagining a new future, I-O and HR professionals need to start imagining a world that serves blue-collar workers as much as it serves business owners and white-collar professionals. How we treat workers during—and after—this crisis reveals how we value the work that they do and the contribution they make to our society. If we can dream it, we can make it happen.