The work world has been changing, and in some job markets the line between white and blue collar jobs has blurred. This has created a different classification known as "new collar," skilled jobs with the strong possibility of upward mobility that do not require a college degree.

It's a phenomenon that was first highlighted by IBM CEO Ginni Rometty last November. She wrote a letter to then-President-elect Donald Trump urging him to help create jobs in this new category. The letter pointed out that her company does not always require a college degree, instead evaluating potential employees based on their skills.

Now, a year later, there are significant efforts to create these types of jobs while training workers to fill them, explained ZipRecruiter Chief Economist Catherine Barrera in a blog post. She noted Congress issued the New Collar Jobs Act to support training for cyber-security skills in July. In addition, she pointed out that companies including IBM and Microsoft have partnered with nonprofits to create training programs and hiring programs that lead to already in demand "new collar" jobs.

A man and a woman cluster over a computer screen.

Web developers don't necessarily need four-year college degrees. Image source: Getty Images.

Where is the new collar demand?

The most-obvious example of new collar jobs has been the explosion in demand for programmers, coders, and web developers. These are positions that are in heavy demand where having the required skills trumps having any sort of four-year degree.

"This trend of focusing on new collar jobs, and non-traditional education paths is the start of an important movement for us as a country to rethink how and why we educate our youth, and to create a system that works better for the new economy  --  whether it's by adapting the institutions we already have, or by developing entirely new ones," wrote Barrera.

It's also worth noting that while coding and web development jobs have been leading the new collar charge, those are not the only fields impacted. Barrera cited pharmacy technicians, medical assistants, and computing analysts as jobs that meet the criteria of having upward potential while not requiring traditional degrees.

Is the current higher-education system broken?

Barrera believes that in many fields the current system of four-year college degrees does not work. She bases that on three points:

  • The most in-demand skills are now changing within the timeframe of a person's career.
  • In fact, college was not originally intended to train young people in hard skills.
  • 4-year degrees are costly, in terms of both money and time.

"The rise of new collar jobs is a great opportunity to refocus the labor market on skills and competencies," she wrote. "Performance in many of these types of new collar positions can be measured directly, rather than inferred from generic credentials."

Of course, there are some professions where traditional degrees still make sense, and there are other benefits to college beyond just direct training to enter the workforce. Offering alternative education paths, however, creates opportunities for more Americans to find high-paying, rewarding work.

"By focusing narrowly on specific and measurable skills, the country can move closer to the American Dream of meritocracy," wrote Barerra. "In addition, this shift will allow us to be more adaptable by continuing to gain in-demand skills over the course of our careers."

That's an admirable goal which is good for both workers and employers. Traditional college is not right for everyone, nor is it an appropriate training system for all jobs. Having more choices creates a stronger, more flexible workforce, where more people have an opportunity to succeed.