Are all workers “knowledge workers”? New Economy knowledge workers - Part 1

Who are knowledge workers? Comparison of old and new economy “knowledge workers”.

The New Economy refers to a global, entrepreneurial, and knowledge-based economy where business success comes increasingly from the ability to incorporate knowledge, technology, creativity and innovation into products and services.

When discussing placemaking in the New Economy, the word “knowledge” and “knowledge worker” are frequently mentioned as key elements needed for communities and regions to successfully shift from the old economy to the new economy. It is often stated that attracting and retaining knowledge workers is critical to success in the global new economy. Knowledge workers are also referred to as talented workers, creatives and creative workers. But what are “knowledge workers”? Are not all workers “knowledge worker”? These are questions frequently asked during Citizen Planner classes offered by Michigan State University Extension.

Forbes magazine provides an overview of the knowledge worker in the old economy and in the new economy,

“In the old system of working, you were often categorized as a “knowledge worker” if you dealt with knowledge and information, which applied to most everyone working in an office. That meant workers basically fell into two categories: knowledge workers (in offices) and manual workers (in factories).

The idea of knowledge workers stemmed from the old-fashioned practice of getting knowledge from an apprenticeship. If you wanted to be a bookkeeper, you needed to apprentice with a bookkeeper; if you wanted to be a manager, you needed to apprentice with a manager. What gave people the power to be knowledge workers was the specific knowledge they gained from their apprenticeships. That practice has taken modern shifts through college learning and internships, with people gaining the specific skills they need in professional, university, and vocational training that translates directly to the workplace.”

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) provides a global definition of the New Economy “Knowledge Worker.” The OECD mission is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world, and to provide a forum in which governments can work together to share experiences and seek solutions to common problems. OECD states:

“The workforce is 'upskilling,' both in terms of the average educational level of workers and the types of job that they are performing. White-collar, high-skilled jobs are driving employment growth. This is not just a question of the growth in knowledge 'sectors.' Work is becoming more skilled across industries and within individual occupations. A group of 'knowledge workers' can be identified as those performing knowledge-rich jobs. Such workers are typically but not universally well educated.

"Some knowledge workers have high levels of literacy and lower levels of education, implying that basic skills obtained beyond education are recognized in the knowledge economy. There are additional 'workplace competencies' needed in the knowledge economy. Communication skills, problem-solving skills, the ability to work in teams and ICT skills, among others, are becoming important and complementary to basic core or foundation skills. Even more than other workers, knowledge workers rely on workplace competencies. However, further research is needed to inform education policy makers about how to develop the right skills for a knowledge economy, rather than assuming that high levels of education alone, as conventionally defined, will be enough."

The OEDC definition of the knowledge worker incorporates both knowledge learned in the halls of academia and knowledge learned on the job. Soft skills are also important in the New Economy work place. WikiJob provides a good overview of soft skills and helps build on and expand the knowledge regarding soft skills. As well as why is it important to have soft skills. WikiJob states:

"Whereas hard skills are the tangible and technical skills easily demonstrated by a candidate’s qualifications and specific professional experiences, soft skills is a term used by employers to refer to the more intangible and non-technical abilities that are sought from candidates. Soft skills are sometimes referred to as transferable skills or professional skills. As this term implies, these are skills that are less specialized, less rooted in specific vocations, and more aligned with the general disposition and personality of a candidate."

The next article in the new economy and the knowledge worker series discusses the local and regional economic benefits of knowledge workers (Part 2) and the last article in this series (Part 3) discusses the concept of the “knowledge worker” as further evolved to the conceptual “learning worker”. 

Related articles in this series:

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