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Programmers Blue Collar?

by awohld (Hermit)
on Jan 14, 2008 at 21:54 UTC ( #662384=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

Someone non-technical told me yesterday that programming was a blue collar job and that it's common for others to hold the same viewpoint. That surprised me because I just assumed it was white collar; maybe my perspective is wrong.

But the more I think about it, being an ordinary programmer has a lot of parallels to my "blue collar" friends jobs in the Tool&Die and Steel industries.

Example: A machinist is highly skilled and can create a complex metal product. In parallel a programmer is highly skilled and can create a complex software product. Both can be paid hourly. Both jobs could also be looked at as a commodity by the general public. Also these kinds of parallels are converging on the similarity of being outsourced.

It appears other people are having the same debate:
Are I.T. Workers Blue Collar?

I know that I'm being simplistic, but I'm interested in the Monks viewpoint. What do you think?

Update: Since this was started by a comment from the general public; what would the general public classify a stereotypical programmer as (blue/white)?

Replies are listed 'Best First'.
Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by Old_Gray_Bear (Bishop) on Jan 14, 2008 at 22:56 UTC
    To me, the difference between 'white collar' and 'blue (or pink) collar' was always the Manager vs Productive-worker divide. The Managers were over-paid, so they could afford to wear shirts that require washing after only one day's wearing. So long as I changed my under-shirt, I could go two days on a denim chambray shirt (three, when I had an office on the raised-floor in the computer room).

    Now-a-days I wear jeans and a black t-shirt with a rock band on it, today it's a Jethro Tull 2000 Tour; just call me no-collar. I just sit at my desk, sorting code and causing tummy-aches for the middle management.

    I Go Back to Sleep, Now.


      I've certaily seen programming shops where the programmers always wear white collars (and ties; well, the male programmers). I've never seen a programming shop where the programmers wear blue cover-alls. I'm pretty sure that is where the "blue collar" term came from.

      So I think "white collar" is the clear winner with regard to programmers. The "Manager vs Productive Worker" divide is what the term "Suits" is for. White collar workers work in offices (no, that doesn't mean that they each get their own office, they might be in the cube farm part of the office) and don't get their hands or knees particularly dirty because they don't do manual labor. They used to mostly wear white shirts but times have changed on that point.

      Sure, at least many programmers have some things in common with other "grunt" workers. But I don't think it makes sense to redefine "blue collar" to cover them.

      I'm actually wearing a blue collar today but I'm not wearing cover-alls. And I call the corner of the house where I do my work my "office" not my "shop".

      - tye        

Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by technojosh (Priest) on Jan 14, 2008 at 22:50 UTC
    White collar, blue collar, its all the same to me.

    I'm collar-blind.

    I'll quit stealing lines from "the office" now...

    I did construction for years. When I switched over to software, believe me the first thing I noticed was the 'white-collar' of the job...

    Maybe other peoples' experience is different, but until i have to load up a 80 pound bag of cement or remodel the QA lab, this is a white-collar job all the way.

      "until i have to load up a 80 pound bag of cement..."

      Does carrying heavy desktop computers count? ;-)

Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by thparkth (Beadle) on Jan 15, 2008 at 01:04 UTC
    I've never heard programmers described as "blue collar" - a phrase which usually describes a worker who though skilled, carries out notionally manual work in a potentially dirty environment. White collar workers, on the other hand, sit in clean offices at desks and don't raise a sweat. That's us, I'm pretty sure.

    Some people who don't really understand much about technology might imagine that since we control and operate machines, we're just like machinists and welders.

    I'm pretty comfortable in my belief that I'm a white-collar worker. What I'm not sure is whether or not we're "professionals" in the same way that lawyers and accountants are. I think project managers and senior systems analysts (whoa, haven't typed that phrase for a few years) can probably make a claim to professionalism, but I think your average regular programmer is just a skilled white-collar worker - in the same category as radiographers and bookkeepers and nuclear power plant technicians.

    I'm comfortable with that too. There's no shame in having a skilled trade ;)

Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by kyle (Abbot) on Jan 14, 2008 at 22:12 UTC

    I used to work with a guy who told me that he'd worked with a guy who would handwrite his programs on graph paper. When told that he could type them himself, he replied that there were operators for that. I got the image of a room full of secretaries typing out dictation.

    I've heard that in some countries, computer folks are considered sort of lowly. They're a dime a dozen, interchangeable.

    I can see the parallels you mention (highly skilled). That said, I've never considered programming to be a blue collar job. The Blue-collar worker article on Wikipedia mentions manual labor and distinguishes white and blue from service workers who are not highly paid and also do not perform manual labor. Maybe that would be a good fit.

      I think the pay-scale might not be relevant to the classification because a lot of stereotypical blue collar jobs can be highly paid in the six figure USD range. Vice versa white collar can be paid poorly.
Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by graff (Chancellor) on Jan 15, 2008 at 04:48 UTC
    Here's my definition of the the "white collar vs. blue collar" distinction, which is more or less consistent with original notions about shirt color that presumably gave rise to these terms:
    • A blue collar worker has to get cleaned up after finishing work.
    • A white collar worker has to get cleaned up before starting work.
    Obviously, that puts people like doctors, nurses, dentists (and perhaps lawyers ;) in a class by themselves, since they need to clean up before and after (and often in the middle of) their work day. (And then there are the "housekeepers" and dishwashers, whose job is nothing more than a constant cleaning up.)

    In those terms, there may be some programmers who would fall into the "blue collar" group... (I've seen a few posts here at the Monastery where monks have admitted needing to wash their hands after working on a some horribly gruesome piece of code.)

    (Update: I apologize in advance if this reply spawns a discussion of personal hygiene among programmers -- no doubt there a many who never get cleaned up, before or after work. Let's not talk about that, please.)

Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by shmem (Chancellor) on Jan 14, 2008 at 23:28 UTC
    Blue collar, white collar - these distinctions amuse those that own you.


    _($_=" "x(1<<5)."?\n".q·/)Oo.  G°\        /
                                  /\_¯/(q    /
    ----------------------------  \__(m.====·.(_("always off the crowd"))."·
    ");sub _{s./.($e="'Itrs `mnsgdq Gdbj O`qkdq")=~y/"-y/#-z/;$e.e && print}
      Right on George..... this ought to be required viewing for all students.

      Back to the original post, I'm from Detroit, and lived during the height of the auto industry. The distinction was as follows:

      blue collar ..... can be put to work with little training, wears anything he wants, and is totally expendable( without unions to protect him).

      skilled trades ..... blue collar types who have gained skills that require a few years to master. They are paid more, and are treated better, because they are more difficult to replace, and are required for smooth operation of the production lines.

      white collar ...... bean counters, engineers, and sons/daughters of the management

      management ..... the owners and profiteers

      As far a programmers go, I would place them in the skilled-trades catagory in the above heirarchy.

      I'm not really a human, but I play one on earth. Cogito ergo sum a bum
Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by talexb (Canon) on Jan 15, 2008 at 15:15 UTC

    That's an interesting comment, and made me laugh out loud when I read it. (My co-workers are used to hearing me laugh.) :)

    Seriously, I agree that there are 'blue collar' elements to the job -- some of the archiving process (burning CDs and DVDs, entering them in the archive database) that I do at the beginning of every month is pretty routine.

    But there are other parts of my job that are *not* blue collar, where I'm working on how to solve a particular technical problem, and there are a number of solutions, each with their own set of pros and cons. Or there's the design or update of a database schema -- that's also not blue collar work.

    And just because I don't come home with dirt or grease under my fingernails doesn't mean I'm not doing anything difficult. Anyone who has dug through layers and layers of subroutine calls, picked through log files and peered at vast database dumps knows that.

      ... what would the general public classify a stereotypical programmer as (blue/white)?

    White collar. For the most part, the development part is a desk job, even if the implementation takes you to a factory floor or a manufacturing facility.

    Alex / talexb / Toronto

    "Groklaw is the open-source mentality applied to legal research" ~ Linus Torvalds

Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by samizdat (Vicar) on Jan 15, 2008 at 15:57 UTC
    Hmmm... interesting. I've always made an additional distinction: "professional". Engineers (including software) do not fit either blue or white collar traditional buckets, although more and more we are being boxed into the 'skilled trades' category. IT workers, especially, are under pressure. I remember in New Mexico there was this huge push to train everybody, and his brother and sister too, as an 'IT Network Administrator'. Needless to say, the only things that accomplished were to:
    1. drive the going rate down
    2. make big headlines when major security breaches happened
    3. provide work for skilled professionals to clean up the messes.

    Are we getting to the point where union protection is necessary? My take is that I don't want it. I'm a very entrepreneurial type, and I have taken many different roles related to electronics, firmware, product development and the web. If there was a union, it would cause a very rigid hardening of the lines of definition as to what constitutes work and productivity, and I, for one, think that would be a huge mistake. IMNSHO, people who want union protection are those who are too intellectually challenged to develop enough of a well-rounded personality to speak up for themselves... because we DO produce product that is well beyond what most other people can create in terms of its value equation. We're not doctors who save lives, but we sure do bring products to life!

    Unions give me a very bad taste in the mouth. I don't think (most) teachers are the cause of the decline in educational quality, but I do think that teachers (and thus, kids) get the short end of the stick because of their union status. The mistake that is made by union people is that they shift the playing field from performance to power, and government always wins a power game, by definition. The same thing is true in the auto industry, but, without guns or firing authority, unions and corporations can only murder each other, to nobody's benefit.

    There has been a valuable purpose to unions in many different times and places, and unions have brought about many improvements in the quality of life for all of us, but they all make the mistake of negotiating on the playing field of power over performance, and in the end it always brings them down to menial and destructive behavior, such as the riggers and "electricians" in Cobo Hall in Detroit who get a hundred dollars for setting up a fake wall or plugging in an electric extension cord at the Auto Show.

    All that hot air expounded (YMMV), I will say that we are definitely moving into one of the most challenging times for programmers. There is huge pressure to commoditize our business, and corporate America has enlisted government on its side to "save American jobs" by training more droids to click through Doze box admin menus. The results listed above will only get worse. Programmers are by nature people who can flexibly think of complex situations from many angles, and our skill set includes the mental tools we need to rise up and lead our employers (or employees) in new directions that benefit the bottom line and our fellow professional developers. I heartily recommend to all that they take this path going forward, and do not pay heed to the sob-sayers in politics who try to tell us that we are "downtrodden" and "need help". BULL-{bleep}!

    Don Wilde
    "There's more than one level to any answer."
Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by hangon (Deacon) on Jan 15, 2008 at 09:35 UTC

    Blue Collar and White Collar are archaic terms from the beginning of the industrial age. Often they served to differentiate labor and management, as in who can be unionized. Other stereotypes evolved as well, but most jobs today cannot be clearly defined as blue or white collar, so its ridiculous to try to pidgeonhole them into one of these categories.

    My personal observation is that when technical workers are required to wear a dress shirt, more often than not it's striped. So, shouldn't programmers be Striped Collar Workers?

Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by DrHyde (Prior) on Jan 15, 2008 at 12:41 UTC
    Who cares what you wear or what environment you work in? What matters is whether you are working class or not. And you're working class if you work for someone else's profit and have no, or only limited, control over what you work on.
Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by sundialsvc4 (Abbot) on Jan 18, 2008 at 17:15 UTC

    There are simply too many angles here:   too many things that “a programmer” (by official job-title) can be or can do.

    Quite a few of the jobs are routine and expendable, and so are the people who do those jobs. But there's always work to be done... every shop has a handful of many-years-old programs that are essential to the business, that were poorly written to begin with and that constantly cause problems. And for every one of those programs there's always a “Charlie” or a “Susie” who knows how to fix them, who has been doing that for the last five or ten years, and who is content to keep on doing it until retirement.

    And then, on the other hand, there are the people who literally are consultants, who are insightful to the point of brilliance, and who have project-management skills over and above their (very considerable) ability as programmers. Sometimes those people become gifted managers but usually they don't. These are the people who you want in the wheel-house of the vessel, because even if they can't quite tell you themselves how they do it, they're the ones who'll consistently keep you off the snags and the rocks. They're the ones who can not only enable you to consistently deliver the cargo to the right port at the right time... they'll be the ones to tell you what to put on board, how to arrange it, and so on. They seem to be guided by intuition, and their intuition is unerringly right.

    So, which one is “the union man?”

    If you find yourself judging yourself as “expendable,” then you probably are. You are also probably “content,” although some intuition nags at the back of your head telling you that you shouldn't be. (And... you shouldn't be.) Sometimes the very best thing that you can do with a “nice, safe comfortable job” is to up and quit. Life is short. There is more to life than Perl. There is more to the true worth of a man or woman, than Perl. There is more to the value that you have for your employer or your company, and for yourself, than Perl.

Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by starX (Chaplain) on Jan 15, 2008 at 10:51 UTC
    Personally, I'll wear a frilly pink and white collar, and a tie with dancing sugar plum fairies on it if the money's right :)

    I think that everyone else has covered the basics, but if I had to make distinctions, I would say I'm a "blue collar" employee if I'm getting paid by the hour and make overtime. If I'm working under contract for a total job (I get paid the same amount whether it takes me 2 hours or 20 to finish), then I would consider myself a "white collar" employee.

    Presently I'm getting paid by the hour, so....

Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by KurtSchwind (Chaplain) on Jan 15, 2008 at 21:52 UTC

    If you are working 'physically' it's blue collar. If you are working 'mentally' it's white collar.

    If you hurt your arm or back and can still perform your job, you are likely a white collar worker, in my perspective. I realize that this might make Wal-Mart greeters 'white collar', but I'll stand by my definition, if for no other reason than it's convinient. :)

    I used to drive a Heisenbergmobile, but every time I looked at the speedometer, I got lost.
Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by Anonymous Monk on Jan 15, 2008 at 23:25 UTC
    I've worked on factory floors; the worst cubicle in my experience is a more comfortable (and safer) place than any factory floor I've seen.

    "White|Blue" collar is not about how one is paid -- engineering aides, drafters (draftmen and draftwomen), computers (it was once a job title, not a piece of hardware), etc were "white" collar. I would classify "white" collar workers as those whose output is not an object, but information. Of course, some workers fall outside the two camps, and some wander back and forth.

Re: Programmers Blue Collar?
by DarkLord1 (Novice) on Jan 16, 2008 at 05:31 UTC

    I'm curious about what the real difference is between "white collar" and "blue collar."

    I know the terms have deep cultural considerations (baggage?) and a lot of class-related connotations; but as I think about it, I realize that I don't really know the difference. Anyone got a good working definition?

    DarkLord1 Looking for Redemption in the Monastery

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