Don’t Call Them Blue Collar Jobs

A writer for IndustryWeek recently shared that he was getting some flack for using the term “blue collar.”

Back in the day, men in offices wore white shirts with white collars, while hard-working laborers wore blue coveralls with blue collars. Upton Sinclair called management “white collar” in the 1930s, but the Wall Street Journal was already using the term in the 1920s, when a collar was often a separate piece of clothing, starched and crisply pressed, worn along with a shirt. White collar workers didn’t do manual labor, so they could wear this impractical garment.

Miners, factory hands, and day laborers wore blue work shirts with attached blue collars. They might be in chambray or denim coveralls. They made less money than white collar workers and they got their hands dirty. Over the course of the 20th century, the distinction grew. White collar workers were upper class and blue collar workers were lower class, or at least working class.

Thus the complaints about the use of the term “blue collar worker” as a synonym for people working in manufacturing.

“We are trying hard to attract the labor we need and using an outdated word that unfortunately conjures up images of undereducated, dirty, low paid, sweatshop jobs, is just not correct,” one reader complained. “These are high-tech jobs in clean environments and we have to get that message out.”

Manufacturing has been suffering from a labor shortage for years, and one factor in that shortage is that younger workers don’t think of manufacturing jobs as desirable. Modern factory work is often clean, high-tech, and well paid, but Millennials might prefer to work as baristas… until their robot replacements show up. Often, the anti-manufacturing attitude can be traced to parents or high school guidance counselors who have an outmoded image of blue collar work, or at least of manufacturing.

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