White or blue collar: Is the collar colour still relevant?
Imagine two sets which are gradually getting closer and closer. As they intersect, their subset is getting bigger while the differences are getting smaller and smaller. This is how nowadays white and blue collar workers are portrayed in relation to each other. Is it really true that there are more alike than not? Will they all fuse? What is mental and physical work? Are there consistent differences we should be aware of? I would like to elaborate on these issues in this article.
“What should I call you?”
We should start with the basics. If we turn back time about 100 years, what would our opinion be about these two occupational areas? What do people think when it comes to blue collar workers?
White collar: White collar jobs include performing the non-manual work; that is dealing with information, not with things. These jobs demand specialized experience and rigorous education (Ypallilos, 2009 quoted by Anjum & Parvez, 2013). Those who perform these jobs are called white-collar workers and bear job titles like: accountants, bankers, attorneys, real estate agents, professional consultants, supervisors, clerks, professionals and managers (Scott, 2013 quoted by Anjum & Parvez, 2013).
Blue collar: Blue collar jobs, on the other hand, involve performing the manual work which requires physical involvement and efforts (Ypallilos, 2009 quoted by Anjum & Parvez, 2013). These jobs require technically skilled personnel who are formally trained and certified like: engineers, mechanics, plumbers, electricians and structural workers. Blue collar jobs can also be performed by low-skilled people who are designated to perform simple tasks such as cleaning, maintenance and assembly line work (Scott, 2013 quoted by Anjum & Parvez, 2013).
There were differences in the forms and means of work, or social esteem, but of course there were also differences in pay, flexibility of performance and further career opportunities for a white or blue-collar worker.
The white and blue collar workers were faced with different values, roles, experiences, work environment, opportunities and advantages based on their positions in the company. This lead to different perceptions, attitudes and behaviours.
With the rapid development of production technologies and the introduction of information and communication technologies into production lead to the transformation of the manufacturing industry. With the changes caused by digitalisation increased flexibility was required from the blue collar workers. They had to implement abilities and skills into their daily work which were unprecedented before.
The emergence of information societies has also significantly transformed the labour market. Instead of the routine activities the focus shifted to ideas and creative solutions. The work of organisations became more flexible. High levels of data processing abilities became desirable. Moreover, there was a shift from the notion of “work as duty” to the concept of “work as self-realisation”.
The graph below illustrates how the characteristics important for employment have changed for white and blue-collar workers. Basically, the trend for both groups is that task-focused skills and abilities used to be important, but this is changing, with an increased emphasis on people and development-focused characteristics.
When it comes to blue collar workers traditionally monotony tolerance and physical abilities were the most relevant (endurance, dexterity, hand stability) and while these traits are still important, there has been increased demand for motivation, training and improvement. Cognitive abilities required for problem solving became important, such as comprehension or quantitative reasoning and as a new field the need for digital competences also increased.
In case of white collar workers traditionally the important traits were quantitative thinking (also known as mathematical sensibility), writing skills and organisation. Nowadays besides work motivation, socialisation, critical thinking, motivation for learning, openness towards change and as a (not so) recent addition digital competences came into focus.
The boundaries that were traditionally observed between the "white collar" and "blue collar" workforce are now very blurred. The social and economic differences that were seemingly the basis of or made this categorisation necessary seem to diminish as well.
Everyone does it differently, but its good all the same
Human recourses are a key element to economic growth. Employees with suitable abilities, skills and competences are able to perform more effectively, therefore increasing production which leads to the economic success of the company.
“But what makes a good employee?”
This question is has been a long time concern of employers, just as professionals in the human resource management field.
Speed? Precision? Focused work? Creativity? Communication? All these together?
In the past, there have typically been significant differences between white-collar and blue-collar occupations in terms of the competences expected, with lower levels of skills expected of blue-collar workers.
With technical advancements and the wide spread of digitalisation nowadays require up to date knowledge. In order to keep this up it is necessary to have the mindset of lifetime learning as well as flexibility. Regardless of job the employee’s motivation to learn and their motivation are aspects that should be accessed.
It is important to keep in mind, that blue collar workers are often faced with situations when they have to solve problems that are related to the job, but are not routine. Problem solving requires cognitive processes which are universal, which means that everyone needs them.
This confirms that learning attitudes and flexible adaptation are also key for blue-collar occupations today (Porubcinova, 2015).
The type of problem that needs to be solved in specific to the job, but they all require the same abilities. That’s why in order to figure out who will be an effective employee, it is a good practice to measure!
Those who measure win for sure!
If we want to know whether someone is going to be a good employee, the best way is to measure, to collect systematic, standardised data. But what do we measure?
Whether you are a white or blue-collar worker, the key to good performance is that you want to perform well.
Does this sound too simple? It may be, but it’s still true.
This means that we have to know the employee’s work attitude, which can be measured by methods specifically developed for this purpose. After this it is needed to ensure that the employee wants to work in the long term. When it comes to white collar workers there is a practice already in place (measuring personal traits, trainings, coaching), but that can’t be said for blue collar workers as it is rare. This needs to change if we are to adapt to the current changing labour market situation.
Some things will always be different
Of course not all differences will disappear between the two “collared” groups. The main difference is still what they work with: in essence white collar workers work with data and information while blue collar workers work with something physical.
The divides are not as clear as before: with the development of information technologies blue collar workers got better at using these tools and their work may involve data management as well. In case of white collar workers, the insight into the work of blue collar workers can become beneficial in certain companies.
For white-collar workers, it is already an accepted method to measure cognitive abilities and skills, and there are several popular tools for this. However, such an instrument can only be considered valid and reliable if it has all the requirements to ensure that the data it provides are free from any bias.
As blue-collar workers are primarily engaged in working with objects, a test that can be run on a computer is not sufficient for them, as it cannot simulate the environment in which they work. Without special tools, different physical abilities cannot be reliably measured. In their case, it is essential to have some kind of hardware-supported measurement that can test motor skills in addition to cognitive skills.
What does all this mean? In order to know if someone is a good employee we have to get to know their main traits: their motivation, cognitive abilities and in the case of blue collar workers (wherever they work) the measurement should be accompanied with measuring motor skills as well. This required specialised devices and through knowledge of the job at hand.
Anjum, M. A. & Parvez, A. (2013). Counterproductive behavior at work: A comparison of blue collar and white collar workers, Pakistan Journal of Commerce and Social Sciences, 7(3), 417–434.
Porubcinova, M. (2015). Work competencies of white and blue collar workers in the context of information society development. Prognostické práce, 7(2), 115–133.Back