Blue-Collar vs. White-Collar Jobs: Differences & Examples

Article Summary:

For the most part, the term “white-collar job” is used to describe occupations where workers sit at a desk and use a computer. Office environment jobs such as accounting, marketing, and banking would be included under this umbrella. Blue-collar positions, usually considered the “working class,” often include some type of manual labor, such as construction workers and employees in the manufacturing and agricultural industries. As technology continues to advance, there has been some organic blurring of the lines between blue-collar and white-collar jobs.

The terms “white collar” and “blue collar” were first coined back in the early 20th century, when they were, pretty obviously, meant to describe the distinctive clothes employees wore in these types of professions.

Blue-collar workers often wore durable fabrics in dark colors (usually blue) for concealing dirt and grease. White-collar workers, on the other hand, typically wore suits with white-collared shirts and ties. Let’s take a closer look at some of the key differences between these classes of professions, how they originally affected the way workers were perceived, and how those perceptions have changed over the years.

White-collar vs. blue-collar perceptions

Whether accurately or not, white-collar workers were generally considered to be better educated and wealthier than their blue-collar counterparts. A white-collar worker was likely deemed academically smarter because their job didn’t involve physical labor.

Blue-collar workers, on the other hand, were considered unskilled, undereducated, and considerably less affluent than white-collar workers. Some of these stereotypes were not altogether wrong when the terms were first used, but they are overly simplistic and definitely don’t reveal the whole picture.

For one thing, the world wouldn’t function if both sides of the coin weren’t represented. A white-collar worker can’t make it to the office if there isn’t a mechanic to fix their car or an engineer to operate the train. In a similar vein, blue-collar workers might find it challenging to get paid if there isn’t an accountant on staff to handle the payroll system.

The point is, neither type of worker is more important than the other; they simply work in distinctly different environments.

Differences between blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs

There are some important distinctions to be made between the two types of profession. White collar is considered more administrative work and can be done remotely, whereas blue collar tends to involve manual labor at specific work sites.

There are multiple reasons why these classifications came about and why workers were more likely to fall into one category or the other. Most commonly, back when the workforce was vastly more male-dominated, up-and-coming workers tended to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. For example, if your father was a cop, you might be more likely to become a police officer yourself. Similarly, if your family worked in finance, you would most likely be steered toward the corporate world.

The following are some other key differences between white collar and blue collar:

Education

White-collar jobs often require some form of higher education. In many cases, a bachelor’s degree is a minimum requirement to even be considered for employment. But if you want to achieve even higher earning potential, you may need additional education, such as a master’s degree or a Ph.D. For example, you can’t be a lawyer without first going to law school and passing a bar exam.

By contrast, blue-collar workers often receive on-the-job training through apprenticeships or other training programs and may only be required to have a high school diploma or equivalent. Workers who seek out further education for blue-collar jobs don’t typically pursue a college degree, but instead are more likely to attend a trade or technical school.

That being said, both blue-collar and white-collar employees have plenty of opportunities for substantially higher earnings by honing highly specialized skills through education.

Payroll systems

In most cases, white-collar workers receive an annual salary based on a 40-hour work week with a predictable schedule. White-collar jobs also normally come with paid time off, health insurance, and some sort of pension or retirement program. Overall, a white-collar job is generally considered a more secure type of employment than a blue-collar position.

Conversely, a blue-collar worker is more likely to be paid by the hour rather than a salary and is typically assigned a number of hours or shifts per week. Furthermore, a blue-collar job is less likely to receive benefits from employers. This means a loss of hours or a missed shift can result in financial insecurity for blue-collar employees.

The main complication here is that a lot of common blue-collar jobs come with a less consistent rate of pay. On the other hand, some blue-collar jobs offer membership in unions or trade associations that do come with pensions and other benefits — often in construction or trade-related labor — giving blue-collar employees the opportunity for more job security.

It’s commonly assumed that white-collar jobs pay better than blue-collar jobs, but this doesn’t always hold true. There are many white-collar jobs that don’t pay as well as certain blue-collar jobs, despite the fact that a white-collar job is more likely to receive a salary rather than an hourly wage. For example, a highly skilled machine operator has a blue-collar job (and probably gets paid by the hour), but they could easily make more money than an office clerk or bank teller, whose jobs are considered white collar.

Work setting

While it isn’t always true, most white-collar jobs are conducted in an office setting. White-collar employees usually sit at a desk and do the majority of their work using only a computer and a phone. They will probably never leave the office except to attend client meetings — which these days are conducted increasingly over video conferencing anyway.

Needless to say, it’s pretty easy for most white-collar work to be done remotely, as evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, many white-collar jobs have continued as remote or hybrid positions even after the worst of the pandemic passed.

During the pandemic, employers and employees realized pretty quickly that there was very little need to be in an office all day, every day to get the job done. Many white-collar employees now get to avoid the downsides of office work, such as long commutes or the need to shower every day.

Most blue-collar jobs, however, don’t have the luxury of remote work. Because these jobs usually require workers to perform manual labor and/or trade labor, they normally call for employees to be on-site every day.

Blue-collar employees are, by and large, pretty much synonymous with “essential workers” nowadays. Their workplaces are in various non-office settings and can be found everywhere: construction sites, factories, grocery stores, workshops, police and fire stations, etc.

The upside for many blue-collar workers was that they didn’t lose their jobs during the pandemic. However, the downside was that they also couldn’t work from home like many white-collar workers, and therefore they were more exposed to the virus.

Skills and responsibilities

As previously stated, blue-collar workers are typically employed by industries that demand some type of physical labor that doesn’t require a college degree but does require a degree of skill.

Yes, there are plenty of blue-collar jobs that don’t require much skill or that can be learned quickly with on-the-job training, such as waiting tables. But don’t forget about the workers who rewire your house, repair your car, or ensure the plane you’re flying in doesn’t crash. Every one of those jobs requires highly specialized skills.

White-collar industries, by contrast, almost always require some type of formal education for their workers to acquire the necessary skills for the job. Higher education teaches important concepts, processes, and procedures, and it’s almost always required by white-collar employers. An accountant without a degree and certification, for example, is unlikely to land a high-paying position with a reputable firm.

Modern-day blue collar and white collar distinctions

As technology continues to make advances in every aspect of our lives, the traditional distinctions of “white collar” and “blue collar” can start to get a little blurry. For instance, just because many blue-collar jobs involve manual labor doesn’t mean they can’t also require highly specialized computer skills, much like many white-collar jobs.

Furthermore, a job site foreman is considered a blue-collar employee, but he also has managerial duties over his construction workers, which could be considered a white-collar skill. Similarly, many civil engineers, for example, started their careers as blue-collar laborers before moving into the office environment, essentially becoming white-collar employees.

Modern technology

Modern technology is now commonplace in the construction process, meaning a blue-collar worker might need training in traditionally white-collar skills to master the latest technological advances.

Consider the example of the automotive industry, for example. Cars now contain sophisticated computer systems, which means today’s auto mechanics need to know more about fixing cars than simply tinkering around under the hood.

Clothing distinctions

Even the clothing distinctions for which these professional categories were named have changed. Watch any old movie or an episode of Mad Men and you’ll notice that businessmen from that era always wore suits and white-collared shirts. Today, it’s not uncommon for white-collar workers to wear jeans to work, while a blue-collar employee isn’t necessarily restricted to a wardrobe of heavy-duty dark-colored clothing.

Shrinking wage gap

Finally, the average pay for white-collar and blue-collar jobs has become increasingly more equitable over the years. This is due to a variety of factors, such as more accelerated increases in wages for blue-collar work compared to white-collar work and technological advances that require many blue-collar employees to work at a higher skill level than their parents had to.

Pro Tip

The differences between blue-collar and white-collar work have become much less clear-cut in the modern age. Before seeking out a student loan for a college degree, consider if a skilled trade may be a better job for you.

Examples of blue-collar and white-collar industries

Here are some examples of industries that fall under blue-collar and white-collar work:

Blue-collar industriesWhite-collar industries
AgricultureTechnology
ConstructionBanking
ManufacturingMedicine
Food serviceLaw
Repair and maintenanceAccounting
LandscapingEngineering
UtilitiesMarketing
Municipal servicesConsulting

FAQ

What are pink-collar jobs?

Pink-collar jobs fall under the umbrella of blue-collar positions, but the term was coined in the 1970s to specifically categorize jobs that were dominated by women.

At the time, jobs that were considered “women’s work” usually involved caring for people in some fashion. Positions that fell under the “pink collar” label included teachers, nurses, social workers, restaurant servers, secretaries, and child-care providers.

What are red-collar jobs?

“Red collar” is used to describe government workers of all types. Allegedly, the term “red collar” is an allusion to all the red tape associated with government processes, as well as the fact that government employees were paid out of the “red ink” budget.

What are green-collar jobs?

“Green collar” describes employees who work in “green jobs,” or environmentally friendly occupations. These can include occupations such as the production of clean energy solutions, green construction, or conservation of public green spaces.

What is a black-collar worker?

“Black collar” used to refer to jobs in which an employee’s work caused his collar to actually turn black, such as coal mining or the oil industry. Nowadays, the term is sometimes used to describe people who work in the arts because such individuals (stereotypically) wear black clothing as an unofficial “uniform.”

What is a gold-collar job?

Gold-collar jobs generally fall under the category of white-collar work but are highly specialized and in demand. Occupations considered gold collar include surgeons, lawyers, research scientists, and airline pilots, to name a few. They also tend to be some of the higher-paying jobs in the U.S. workforce.

Key Takeaways

  • “Blue collar” and “white collar” are categories of professions that involve work in some type of manual labor industry versus work in an office environment, respectively.
  • The terms were named after the traditional clothing worn by blue-collar and white-collar workers, and they remain widely used to this day.
  • Technology and other advancements have distinctly blurred the lines between the two types of professions over the past several years.
  • As a result, the stereotype that white-collar workers make more money than blue-collar employees has become an outdated concept in the modern age.

Because the lines between blue-collar and white-collar work have become increasingly blurred in recent years, the stereotypes surrounding both are becoming a relic of the past. Whether you’re intent on pursuing higher education for a white-collar career or more suited for skilled labor in a blue-collar position, there are numerous opportunities out there to find a job that’s right for you.

Additionally, the internet and the gig economy are making the distinction between collar colors obsolete. Nowadays, you can make extra money through a side hustle. Start by comparing some of the best online side jobs you can start today.

View Article Sources
  1. Summary of the Major Laws of the Department of Labor – U.S. Department of Labor
  2. Blue Collar and White Collar – Encyclopedia.com
  3. What Does Blue Collar Mean? – WritingExplained.org
  4. Overlooked on economy? Rising paychecks for blue-collar workers are shrinking the wage gap – USA Today