The one with the irrelevant collar colour

In 1924 a newspaper in Alden, Iowa described trade work as a ‘blue collar job’ and a term was coined. 88 years later at a conference in London I overheard a conversation discussing career development aspirations and the use of social media for blue-collar workers and it dawned on me how irrelevant the term has become, yet still used.

It doesn’t take much deduction to work out where it started – people ‘on the floor’ doing manual/unskilled work (you know classic Taylor stuff) would wear blue shirts as their clothes were more likely to become dirty whereas those in office jobs would wear white shirts as they finished the day like an English winger in the 6 Nations – pristine!

If you consider work today the notion that it’s only those in non-office based roles who do lower skilled or repetitive tasks (what we may consider blue-collar jobs) it soon becomes clear the distinction ended some time ago. Many call centre workers do work that is at best repetitive and some manual roles (like engineers and some of the more hands on IT roles) have a great deal of variety and autonomy in how and where they perform their roles.

A distinction I stumbled on whilst reading Daniel Pink‘s book “Drive” (worth a read) separates work not on the basis of location of where tasks are completed or the type of job being completed but rather into these two categories:

“Algorithmic – a task which follows a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion.
Heuristic – a task that has no algorithm, you have to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution.”

Which seemed to me a far more relevant distinction for the diversity of roles that exist today.

The problem I then faced (in my head) was trying to put people in boxes (never a smart thing to do but I try none the less) which resulted in these questions:

  • Do those carrying out algorithmic work want a role with more heuristic tasks?
  • Do those carrying out heuristic work enjoy the challenge of finding a novel solution? [there are may connotations of these first two questions]
  • Is there a correlation between those who seek career development and the nature of the work being carried out?
  • What links if any are there between these two terms and the notions of job vs. career?
  • Can any of these questions really exist in a world where people wear purple and white checked shirts?

I didn’t really get much further than this. It did make me stop and check myself in some of the assumptions under which I had been operating and make me counsel myself (yet again) against the dangers of putting people in boxes. It served, to me at least, as yet another reminder that whilst we choose to study work at various levels every employee is an individual with an individual story. That story often spans and at times defies any classification we may choose to make in order to try to manage some of the processes that surround people.

I think at times it’s too easy to sit in a room and think that ‘people’ will want to do stuff (develop their career, engage in an organisational community, do work that forces them to think differently) when actually a person will want many different things for many different reasons. Damn them 😉

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1 Comment

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One response to “The one with the irrelevant collar colour

  1. A problem is that “blue collar”, “white collar”, “round collar” are all labels that enable us to think we have understood something without having to go through the work of actually looking at it or thinking about it. Perversely, the increasing power of brands and our faith in them make this worse.

    The label makes the subject opaque, when what is needed is clarity and transparency to enable real appreciation of the drives and desires of people is different situations

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