Dan Arens

There is more to our workforce than just red, white, or blue collar workers. As we celebrate the birthday of our nation, it might be the right time to re-introduce some old terms and a new one with regard to the various workforces that are developing in this country.

For more than one hundred years, workers have been categorized by the type of job they performed. Most people are familiar with the term “blue collar,” as they are with “white collar,” but many are not used to the terms of “red collar” and “new collar.” Nor are they familiar with the personnel changes going on in many sectors across the economy of today.

According to author Julia Kagan, “Classifying workers by the color of their shirts dates back to the early 1920s. At the time, many of those in trade occupations who did physical labor in all sorts of temperatures, wore darker colors, which didn’t show dirt as readily. It was not unusual to see them wearing boiler suits, chambray shirts, overalls, and jeans all in the color blue.” Kagan goes on to mention, “Blue-collar jobs are considered ‘working class’ jobs, which are typically manual labor and paid hourly.” Interestingly enough, the term has morphed to the point where it is not uncommon to include people with more formal educations or someone who is highly skilled, such as workers in the nuclear energy industry who can easily earn over $70,000 a year.

White-collar employees, on the other hand, held salaried positions and performed non-manual labor in an office setting—and invariably wore clean, pressed white shirts or blouses, which they could afford to launder frequently. In the past, these workers were traditionally better educated, but not so much any longer.

According to Kelly Campbell an independent writer, “Red collar workers are perhaps the easiest collar group to define: they’re government workers of all types. The ‘red collar’ moniker actually derives from previous government labor compensation methods. Government workers used to receive their pay from what was known as the red ink budget—and the nickname stuck.”

Campbell goes on to define “new collar” workers, as well; “Lastly—a non-color but arguably one of the most important to the economy—‘new-collar’ workers develop the technical and soft skills needed to work in technology jobs through nontraditional education paths. These workers do not have a four-year degree from college. Instead, new-collar workers are trained through community colleges, vocational schools, software boot camps, technical certification programs, high school technical education and on-the job apprentices and internships.”

In a recent article for The Wall Street Journal, Vanessa Furhrmans and Kathryn Dill went on to describe the activities of new collar workers. From a broader perspective, as more and more of the baby boom generation retires, jobs in the field of technology have soared. The pandemic notwithstanding, many businesses have been unable to hire a satisfactory number of qualified people, so they have removed many job pre-requisites like undergraduate college degrees and/or sufficient work experience. Those kinds of changes have resulted in a seismic shift of workforce talent to new collar opportunities.

Fuhrmans and Dill tell the following story of a young, uneducated, but motivated immigrant who had retail sales experience at a cellphone store in San Francisco. “He heard about a position at a software maker that came with a promise of on-the-job training. He didn’t have any tech experience but his friend, who already worked there, assured him that they were looking for people who could learn the job; once hired, he learned the technology. By next year he hopes to be promoted to an account executive and make six figures selling software to corporate clients, well beyond the $80,000 he made in his best year of retail sales.” That story alone cites a perfect example of the transition taking place in the workforce of today.

Whether the cause of blurring collar colors has been a result of the pandemic, the great resignation, or baby-boomer retirement, employers are getting more creative in their ability to reach out and hire someone they hope has potential, as opposed to requiring a specific set of credentials before someone can even apply for a job. Employers are also reviewing their benefits offerings. Fortunately for them, every attempt to hire the right person for the right job can impact the growth and sustainability of their business.

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