Blue collar/white collar stratification needs to end

March 7, 2006
Overhauling popular perception calls for a change of shirts.

One of the biggest obstacles to our advancement in the 21st century is the public’s 20th-century view of the business world. We must continually educate business, government, media and education leaders about the changes in the maintenance world if we are to overcome the skills shortages and fully capitalize on the maintenance profit potential.

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Those in the industry will attest that there have been unprecedented pressures, challenges and historic changes in the workplace over the past 50 years, yet many of our descriptions for job functions have remained the same as they were years ago. A case in point is the classification of jobs as either blue-collar or white-collar.

These labels divided our culture into two classes where blue-collar workers traditionally were paid less and were required to respond to mandates from white-collar professionals. This inequality sometimes created an us-versus-them mentality, impacting business productivity and profitability.

Now, through flattening of the traditional business infrastructure, many responsibilities previously held by white-collar workers are now performed by hourly personnel. Also, with the introduction of technology and automation, skill level expectations have increased significantly for blue-collar functions, while the skill level for office functions remains much the same, albeit modernized by computer technology.

As the accompanying figure shows, during the past 50 years the U.S. workforce has drastically changed from mostly unskilled to a high dependence on skilled workers. Many unskilled jobs have been exported to third-world countries or automated.

To develop the infrastructure needed to support this modern workforce and become more competitive in the global marketplace, I think we should define a new “collar” to adequately distinguish a new type of worker. Since negative views exist for both blue-collar and white-collar, I have chosen to label this new collar as green. The green-collar category is a hybrid in that it combines attributes from both the blue-collar and white-collar categories and includes highly intellectual functions. The color also signifies the significant wage potential for those in the new category.

Blue-collar workers are often perceived as working for white-collar managers, but a green-collar worker works with management. While white collars are seen as creating jobs for their blue-collar counterparts to perform, the new green-collar employee both creates and performs work.

Similarly, a green-collar worker uses both the manual skills once perceived as belonging to blue-collar jobs and the office skills seen as reserved for the white-collar realm. Also, a green-collar employee works on thought-intensive projects and focuses on long-term goals, and has the potential to serve as a subcontractor and perhaps open up his own service company.

Blue-collars used to have to take what they were given or leave. Now, green-collar workers often dictate technical and budgetary issues to white collar workers.

Many maintenance functions that require a high level of training and skill, like electrician, electronic technician, PLC programmer and maintenance planner, should be classified as green-collar positions.

As North American baby-boomers retire and automation and technology are introduced to reduce costs and provide consistent performance, dependency on green-collar functions will continue to rise.

Why is the new classification important? It can help mitigate any shortfall of skilled maintenance workers by removing the negative stereotypes the next generation has been exposed to about this type of manufacturing job. In reality, skilled workers are more in demand, can garner equal if not higher wage levels, and have direct influence on the direction of our businesses. For the economy to move forward, we need to recognize this change and encourage more of our youth to pursue such career paths.

Contact Joel Leonard at [email protected]

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