Blue-Collar Definition

Explore the definitions, myths & challenges of blue-collar work versus white-collar professions, plus how to manage a blue-collar workforce effectively.

Dara Dolinsky
July 29, 2020

What is a Blue-Collar Worker and How are They Different from White-Collar Workers?

The blue-collar term comes from the 1920s when blue-collar workers wore darker clothes—like denim or coveralls—than their white-collar counterparts to keep their clothing looking cleaner despite their messier work environments. Blue-collar is a term that describes a worker “whose duties call for the wearing of work clothes or protective clothing” due to the manual and physically-demanding nature of their work.

Typical blue-collar professions include welding, manufacturing, agriculture, construction, maintenance, trucking, warehousing, and much more. A blue-collar job can be skilled, unskilled, salaried, or waged. Often blue-collar workers are deskless workers, meaning they spend the majority of their work hours outside of an office and not working from a computer on a desk.

The term “white-collar” didn’t quite come into wider circulation until a decade later, in the 1930s, when it was coined by Upton Sinclair, an American writer who referenced the word in connection to clerical, administrative, and managerial functions. It relates to the fact that during most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, male office workers in European and American countries almost always had to wear white, collared dress shirts.

Eventually, the term widened to encompass nearly every job that was simply “non-manual” in nature, including everyone from accountants and engineers to lawyers and financial managers. Today, most white-collar work requires an advanced degree of some kind such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but there are also many “behind the desk” jobs that require no degree at all.

Common Myths about Blue-Collar Workers

While many misconceptions that surround blue-collar work were based partially in truth many years ago, the story today is quite different.

The number one myth? Many people believe that if you work in the blue-collar industry, you make less than white-collar workers. In fact, many different blue-collar professions make as much as—or even more than—financial advisors, scientists, and veterinarians. Power plant operators, electricians, elevator installers, drill operators, and several others can make as much as $90,000 a year! Most blue-collar jobs pay by the hour, meaning workers aren’t exempt from overtime. Adding in over-time wages, blue-collar workers could easily earn over six figures a year.

Another myth is that blue-collar work is unfulfilling. That is simply not true. Whenever we learn a new skill, especially one we consider useful, we are fulfilled. Mike Rowe, the creator, producer, and host of the TV Show Dirty Jobs says, “Learning how to weld, or how to run electric, or how to install a toilet -- these skills can and often do lead to fulfilling careers, balanced lives, and better than average pay. Even if you don’t spend the rest of your life working in the trades, there’s simply no downside to learning a skill.

Our favorite myth is that blue-collar work is “man’s work.” With the tech boom that has hit the blue-collar market, automation and robotics have opened up the doors for more companies to recruit women into roles that were traditionally seen as men’s muscle work such as fitters, welders, and machinists. There has been a large push from organizations such as Women in Trucking who are working to address the obstacles that normally keep women from entering or succeeding in blue-collar work.

Unique Challenges of Managing a Blue-Collar Workforce

Blue-collar workers are a crucial element to your company's success. Without these workers, no one would be doing the hard work to actually build and provide your company’s services. Yet, we try to manage blue-collar workers the same way we manage white-collar workers, and it’s failing us. So what should you change?

  • How you communicate: Stop using communication channels designed for white-collar workers. Email is a great form of communication for employees who sit in front of a computer, constantly notified of new messages appearing in their company email inbox. But deskless workers are on the move. They aren’t checking their emails. Often, they don’t even have company emails. What they do have is their cell phones. And with open rates for texts as high as 98% compared to just 20% for emails, it just might be time to start texting your employees.
  • Your company culture: You probably don’t need to change it, but you want to make sure all of your employees fit with the culture, not just those sitting in the main office. There is a high demand for skilled workers, and the average turnover among blue-collar workers is at 20%. So why are people leaving? Hays Report found 43% of 2,000 professionals surveyed said they were looking for a new job due to corporate culture. If you happen to have high turnover, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a terrible corporate culture, but it is a strong signal that you aren’t hiring the right people for your culture. The key to good hires is pre-screening your applicants. A quick way to filter is to ask the right questions at the beginning of your application.
Top 5 Blue-Collar Interview Screening Questions Infographic

If you’re reading this, you’ve already taken the first step to improving your blue-collar workforce’s job satisfaction. Take the next steps to connect more deeply with your teams through personalized communication, recognition for work well done, and timely feedback. If you’re curious about where to start or how software can help improve your communication efforts to your entire blue-collar workforce, try Team Engine risk-free.

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