Skip to main content

Columbia Business Monthly

Blue (Collar) is the New Gold

May 10, 2022 03:36PM ● By Marty Flynn

Our human tendency to label things has rarely served us well because it promotes separation and division, and the only place that separation through labeling seems to make sense is in the laundry hamper. 

I have recently been contemplating one particular example of labeling that divided our work force, and has shaped the career mindset of many generations.

I am talking about the classification of workers as blue collar and white collar, a demarcation founded on their contrasting work environments.

In the blue collar, we had the man who worked with his hands and tackled gritty tasks that required more resilient and darker clothing. In the white collar resided the man in the office sporting the crisp attire befitting his communication tools of a smile, a handshake, and a writing utensil.

So yes, this example of labelling did start out as a practical matter of work uniform, and while over time adherence to these divisive colors became less prevalent, the web of deception had already been spun.

In a great disservice to the craft of work, we assigned greater significance to one over the other in the form of wealth acquisition, prestige, and social capital. The blue-collar track was a sentence of toil and shift work, and subservience to “the man,” and the white-collar career came to signify education, prominence, and escape from the grind of physical labor.

As a result, the man bound by the blue collar plied his trade with the determination that his son would not follow him, but rather sit at the learning table built by the hands of his forebears, and become his own master. And thus, the line was drawn between craft and corporate prominence, between sweat of the brow and comfort of the chair, between job description and job title. The calloused hand was on notice.     

There was a time when we had apt phrases to describe our appreciation for the role of the human hand in our daily endeavors. We admired someone’s handywork, and we expressed our confidence in someone by putting the problem in capable hands, and we admired the person who could turn his hand to anything. In times of need we spoke of someone lending a hand.

We valued the candidate with firsthand experience. Today, it seems that our hands play more of a supporting role in making things, fixing things, and healing our ailments. We promote a hands-off approach to life in our increasingly touchless world. 

But the day of reckoning is upon us. We have invested way too many of our resources in things that connect people such as social media platforms, and not enough in the people that connect the practical elements of wires, pipes, wood, etc. We have forsaken the trades, and in doing so we have stranded ourselves at the mercy of impending domestic disaster.

The modern dwelling house boasts of every comfort and accommodation in the form of gourmet kitchens, lavish bathrooms, colossal closets, and on and on, and in the midst of such luxurious spaces, you will rarely find the secret to their sustenance – the toolbox. Yes, technology has made our existence more convenient, more comfortable, and more opulent, but the functionality of water systems, air conduits, and electricity, still depend on skills and craft that are powered by good old-fashioned sweat and know-how. 

Just like in times past when the need arose for a catchy campaign to promote greater consumption of milk among kids and families, we now need some kind of “got grit” campaign to restore our trades to the heart of our workforce.

Plumbers, electricians, and HVAC technicians are emerging as some of the most needed and valuable professional people in our lives. The day is coming when we will have these experts on a retainer just to guarantee his or her services when our pipes runneth over. 

I also foresee a lucrative technology application where problem diagnosis, direction, and assistance will be provided remotely in order to maximize the availability of the skilled tradesperson, and minimize the cost of waiting for this hard-to-find human help.    

As a business teacher in a community college, I want to go back to night school and learn some basic skills that might prolong the functionality of my household, or at the very least minimize the damage of a mechanical disruption until I can locate the assistance of a professional high in demand.

In our quest for wealth and status we have rendered ourselves helpless prisoners in our own homes. How empowering would it be to know how things work, to speak of wrenches and pliers as essential tools for living. 

We need to redirect our devotion to chasing things we cannot hold or touch like cryptocurrencies and NFTs, and invest in things that offer satisfaction, reward, and pride of completion. A purposeful opportunity that will make you a hero to your spouse, family, and neighbors, lies close at hand.

It is called a job, and in an era where we have the resources at hand to learn anything, why not roll up our sleeves and become masters of our own domestic domains?

The collars we wear – regardless of shape, size, or color – all end up in a pile of laundry, but the man that we once knew as a blue-collar worker is now the man with the golden hands for, yes indeed, blue is the new gold.  

Marty Flynn is head of the marketing department at Greenville Technical College.