“Once blue-collar, always blue-collar” is a myth.
Millions of workers have made the transition from blue-collar to white-collar work. And this transition continues to be a viable option with no signs of it slowing down in the foreseeable future.
What is Blue-Collar Work?
Blue-collar work traditionally implies manual labor, working with your hands or providing for yourself and your family by the sweat of your brow. It is rapidly becoming a smaller and smaller sector of the workforce.
To a large extent, blue-collar jobs are associated with manufacturing. In the US, manufacturing has been falling as a share of employment for decades, hovering today at around 11%.
In addition to manufacturing, more and more jobs that make up the blue-collar workforce—mining, assembly line, machine operators, repair—are becoming harder to come by. These sectors of activity are now seen as precarious. Their jobs are being outsourced or becoming extinct in favor of automation or artificial intelligence.
According to the World Economic Forum, they expect automation to replace roughly 85 million jobs worldwide by 2025. Currently, nearly 30% of tasks are carried out by machines. This has the advantage of making many jobs much easier to perform, and it leads to the creation of other jobs that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
On the other hand, automation also has the effect of further decreasing an already shrinking sector for employment.
What is White-Collar Work?
A white-collar worker essentially works in an office environment, though not necessarily. The tasks they carry out usually consist of administrative, clerical, or managerial duties. They typically earn more than blue-collar workers. Their job offers them possibilities for advancement, and their job requirements do not involve much if any, physical labor.
In contrast to blue-collar, white-collar work – office work, managerial and administrative functions – has been on the rise. Recent labor statistics show a boom, not only in the number of people entering these sectors of activity but also in the scope of what it means to be a white-collar worker.
Today, the economies in the US and the UK have shifted from a strong manufacturing base to a more service-based economy. Now, the white-collar workforce makes up the dominant working class, both in terms of numbers and in terms of salary and/or profit distribution.
A Vanishing Stigma
Joining the white-collar workforce has taken on a slighter different meaning today than it did in past generations. The stigma attached to it, one of elitism or privilege, has largely vanished. This is understandable, for how can the status be elite when it corresponds to the majority of the workforce?
Why Enter the Workforce as a Blue-Collar Worker?
Individuals may enter the workforce as blue-collar workers for a variety of reasons. It could be a tradition – they come from a blue-collar background. Or, it could be they lack the training or education requirements to access white-collar positions. Or, it could be a personal choice. Deciding on a profession or a job often comes down to personal preference or philosophy.
Blue-collar jobs generally involve physical labor. Typically jobs in agriculture or construction are blue-collar jobs. And there can be something extremely rewarding about working with your hands, working the land, or building something physical, imposing, or lasting.
Though in some circles, there continues to be a stigma attached to blue-collar workers, the truth is that our society could not function without them. And, thankfully, there will always be a percentage of the population that gravitates toward blue-collar work.
Transitioning: a Choice or a Necessity?
For those who have entered the workforce as a blue-collar worker and perhaps do not see it as a good fit, or they are concerned about the future of their job when new technology takes over, it is by no means obligatory they remain a blue-collar worker forever.
Several paths lead from blue-collar to white-collar work. But before embarking on one of those paths, there are important elements to consider, such as career goals, intrinsic and extrinsic value, as well as your own skillset and what fields you could or would want to excel in.
For some, however, who are seeing their blue-collar jobs disappear, either from outsourcing or from automation, transitioning to white-collar work is not a choice but a necessity.
The trends we are seeing in outsourcing, automation, artificial intelligence, and a shift away from manufacturing and toward a more service-based economy are more than likely to continue. If you are weighing the pros and cons, the simple truth of the matter is – transitioning from blue-collar work to white-collar work may not be a choice we have the luxury of contemplating for much longer.
To survive in today’s ever-shifting economic landscape, let’s take a look at how best to transition from blue-collar to white-collar jobs.
The 4 paths to entering the white-collar workforce.
- Civil service
The private sector remains the largest employer of white-collar workers. Nearly 30% of white-collar jobs are found in large corporations (businesses employing at least 10,000 workers).
In the past, entering the white-collar workforce required obtaining degrees from higher learning institutions, a university diploma, a master’s degree, etc. While having knowledge in a specialized field is still a requirement for white-collar work, there are other ways to acquire this know-how than at a university.
- Community college
- Trade school – Take a comparative look at trade schools vs traditional colleges
- Adult continuous education courses
- Online courses – Despite common misconceptions, online courses do not necessarily require advanced computer or tech knowledge
- Volunteer work
While holding a university diploma still gives you an edge in today’s competitive job market, holding a university degree has fallen considerably low on the list of priorities of recruiters. In place of diplomas, the top priority searched for by recruiters is demonstrable value.
Regardless of where you acquire your know-how and skills, you will then need to demonstrate how these skills and know-how translate to value for a company. Prior experience that you can show on your resume, either on punctual projects or in volunteer work, remains the most reliable measuring stick.
Often considered ‘soft skills’, such as good communication, organization, or interpersonal skills, transferable skills can be translated into value for just about any type of company hiring for a white-collar position.
These skills are not specific to any one task and can be put into action in almost any type of work context. So, when listing a blue-collar position on your CV, highlight the transferable skills that you demonstrated at that position.
For example, if you worked with a machine, highlight how you were able to show or teach other people how to use the machine. Highlight how you were instrumental in forming and defining safety protocols for operating the machine.
Operating the machine itself is not a transferable skill and is only of value to a recruiter looking for someone who can operate that machine. On the other hand, the skills demonstrated in the actions above are transferable and are of great interest to recruiters of white-collar positions.
Transferable skills can also be put into practice, or demonstrated, in a non-work context:
- Charitable organizations
- Outreach programs
- Volunteer work
- Organizing and/or hosting local events
- Fundraising drives
- Social media presence
Build your CV with transferable skills. With practical real-world examples, whether in a work context or other, show how you have put transferable skills into action that translated into value.
The private sector is not the only avenue toward white-collar work.
Civil service, in the broad sense of the word, is not limited to government administration. It can refer to jobs within NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and jobs in international entities such as the United Nations or NATO.
The benefits of being a civil servant are multiple.
- Job security
- Excellent benefits – these include, but are not limited to, healthcare and special leaves, such as maternity or paternity
- Attractive work-life balance – with paid holidays and a workweek most often shorter than you will find in the private sector
- Growth opportunities – whether by lateral transfer, relocation opportunities, or the possibility to receive continuous training to improve your skills
While the steps to becoming a civil servant vary from country to country and from sector to sector, with a bit of research you should find that many positions have apprenticeship programs that lead directly to a position in civil service. Likewise, many full-time jobs come as a result of initially volunteering.
Some positions are obtained not from a hiring practice but from local or national elections or political appointments.
Freelance opportunities are more commonly found in creative activities, such as web development, graphic design, copywriting, and photography. However, many service-based industries reach out to freelancers to provide training to their staff, consulting, translation, marketing, and a host of other services.
Most of these jobs are done remotely. And more and more companies are opting to subcontract some of their work to freelancers as opposed to taking on more full-time or part-time staff. This is a trend that has risen over the last few years. And it shows no indication of slowing down.
To cater to this new and ever-expanding crop of workers, there is no shortage of online communities and platforms dedicated to facilitating the interaction between employers and contract employees or freelancers.
Be your own boss and work from home – it’s nice work if you can get it. And you can!
Whether it’s providing virtual assistance, transcription or translation, working in sales, promotion, or marketing, acting as a specialized instructor or an event planner, we are seeing more and more freelance opportunities. Some of the top work-from-home jobs in 2020 require little to no prior education, though they do require know-how and/or specialized skills.
If you have identified a need in the market you feel you can fulfill, you may want to consider starting your own company. The steps involved, on the administrative and legal front, vary from country to country. But what does not change is that every government wants more businesses active in their jurisdiction. More businesses translate to more entities they can tax as well as more potential employees entering the workforce.
For this reason, we are seeing an increase in government grants and small business loans. These kinds of aids have opened up the path to entrepreneurship for millions of people. Additionally, there are many financing options available from the private sector, as well.
Starting a business from scratch is not the only path towards owning and operating your own business. With good credit, capital or investors, a savvy, hard-working, and ambitious professional could consider buying a failing business and turning it into a successful one.
Starting your own business is certainly not the easiest way to transition from blue-collar to white-collar, nor is it the most stable or most secure, but for the right people, it is an option worth considering.
In fact, a recent study conducted by the PEW Research Center concludes that the self-employed, and the people they hire, accounts for roughly 30% of jobs in the US. Approximately a quarter of those people also hire at least one other employee.
This figure is relatively stable. In fact, going all the way back to the early 1990s, the figure has not fluctuated by more than 2% during any given year. This means that self-employment and entrepreneurship are popular options for employment and relatively sustainable ones in many cases.
Look Before you Leap
Transitioning from blue-collar to white-collar work goes far beyond a simple change in jobs. It could represent a change in lifestyle, and to some, a philosophical shift. It represents a reimagining of your identity, how you perceive yourself, and your place in this world.
This type of transition requires a thorough self-assessment. To thy own self be true is often more easily said than done.
What are your values?
- Intrinsic values – they are ends in and of themselves
- Extrinsic values – they are instruments or tools that serve as a means to another value
- Financial compensation
- Work-life balance
- Community involvement
What are your skills?
- What abilities or know-how have you used to perform specific tasks, in a work or a non-work context?
How did you acquire these skills?
- Not necessarily where (university or online course) but how – this is important because you will need to acquire more skills as you transition into another job. And each person learns or acquires skills in their own way. Knowing how you learned the current skills you possess, and assessing the effectiveness of this method, can go a long way toward learning new skills in an equally or perhaps more effective manner.
How have you put this know-how or these skills into practical application?
How have these skills translated into value for you?
How have they translated into value for others?
- This is valuable information to a recruiter. It can also give you insight into how valuable your skills are and what other fields or tasks they can be applied to.
A proper and thorough self-assessment will give you insight into what fields you should target and/or what you may be lacking in order to successfully transition into your next career path.
Define your Career Goals
Following a proper self-assessment, you will need to define your career goals – where you see yourself in 5 years, in 10, in 20; what you hope to get out of your job or career; what you are willing to go through or sacrifice in order to reach your goals.
Career goals are not limited to a professional context. For some, a career is a means to an end, perhaps financial or personal. If for you, a career is a means to an end, then part of defining your career goals must take into account what that end is exactly.
Make your career goals SMART
With this approach, your career goals will pass from something you wish for to something you actively pursue. However, while it is a good idea to write them down, keep track of them, and to an extent make them public, resist the temptation to set them in stone. Your career goals will become more and more specific as you close in on them, as will the obstacles keeping you from reaching them.
Your goals can change, which is by no means a bad thing so long as you don’t treat ‘change’ as a euphemism for ‘abandon and replace’.
Transition is the New Normal
Unlike with prior generations, today’s job market no longer sees an individual enter the workforce and stay at that job, or even in that field, for an extended period of time.
According to recent labor statistics, today’s worker changes jobs on average every 4.2 years. This tendency should only increase as we see technology changing at an ever-accelerating rate.
This might be cause for concern to some, but if you anticipate the change and prepare to take advantage of it, it could very well work to your benefit.
Change is the only thing that stays the same. Transition is the new normal. Therefore, transitioning from blue-collar work to white-collar work can not only be advantageous in today’s economic climate, it’s almost expected – if not inevitable.