Blue-Collar Workers

Blue-Collar WorkersBlue-collar workers, or the working class, comprise a segmented and stratified population in which economic location influences potential career mobility. Defined as manual or services laborers, this working class can be divided into five categories, based on skills and type of industry: self-employed, skilled or craft employees, semiskilled or unskilled employees in core sectors, semiskilled or unskilled employees in periphery sectors, and the marginally employed working less than 27 weeks per year, according to William Form and George Putman. Mobility is often influenced not only by individual skills but also by the structure and economic strength of the organization in which the worker is employed. The direct context of occupational mobility resides in the firm or organization.

Organizations may be divided into the categories of core and periphery. Core organizations are capital-intensive, profitable, and labor-intensive, employing low-skilled workers with high-paying and relatively secure jobs. Blue-collar workers represent a dependable workforce as well as an investment for core organizations; thus, the chances for movement within the organization are greater than for workers in periphery organizations. Large organizations use a vacancy mechanism and channel mobility through internal routes, with experienced workers having more favorable opportunities. Periphery organizations tend to be small, less profitable, and labor-intensive, consisting of a less stable workforce. Thomas DiPrete has characterized the periphery workforce as temporary workers, part-time workers, and workers on contract. Additional structural factors affecting worker mobility may be defined by industry growth patterns and hierarchy mechanisms.

Josef Bruderl has defined vacancy mechanism as positions created either by individuals exiting the organization or organizational growth offering individuals a chance for upward mobility. Opportunity is dependent on hierarchy structures and the individual’s location within the hierarchy, and as the individual proceeds upward, chances for advancement decrease. Organizational expansion or contraction is an important factor in worker opportunity. Expanding organizations represent a positive opportunity, while contracting organizations have a negative impact, especially on blue-collar workers. Contracting organizations will dismiss blue-collar workers in order to protect white-collar workers. These actions have a cultural basis as well as an economic consideration.

Given these organizational factors, several mobility characteristics can be observed. Among the skilled-worker category, sons are more likely to assume their fathers’ occupations, but skilled workers tend to experience more upward mobility and less downward mobility than those in other categories. Although children of skilled workers are more likely to assume their fathers’ occupations, two to three times the percentage of children of skilled workers are likely to pursue higher education. Changing characteristics of blue-collar work and lack of opportunity must be considered when discussing blue-collar mobility.

Recent restructuring by employers has created a number of low-wage occupations in which workers are unable to provide basic family needs. The percentage of working families who earn less than the basic family budget for their communities increased to 29 percent in the late 1990s. Factors such as globalization, deregulation, changing financial markets, and changing institutions have forced a change in how employers do business and in attitudes concerning the workforce. Cost-cutting efforts have most often focused on the wages of employees. Approaches such as wage freezes, increased production requirements, benefit loss, temporary employment, outsourcing, and relocation to low-wage environments have created low-wage occupations that offer little or no chance for mobility. Survival has become the norm, with little chance for advancement. Outsourcing and offshoring, secular declines in wages and job stability for blue-collar workers, and increased competition with immigrant workers have produced increased prospects for displacement, downward income and status mobility, and geographic mobility.

Self-investment is an important factor in this environment, and chances for mobility decrease with age and tenure on the job. Education often leads to occupational upgrading and is viewed as an important channel for mobility. The lack of opportunity for education and training constitutes a main cause for individuals remaining in low-wage jobs or failing to obtain employment. Schooling, ability, and job experience function as a means and resource for mobility, and although the children of professionals and managers have increased access to educational resources, educational opportunities have remained stable in the twentieth century and uniform across industrial nations. Labor and management have recognized the important role of education and adopted a number of programs to increase worker opportunity.

As corporate restructuring has weakened job ladders, education and training have been viewed as a conventional response for worker mobility. Six out of 10 workers in today’s economy can be considered skilled, with basic computer literacy required by 75 percent of all workers. Education and training must be considered a lifelong requirement. Bill Fletcher and Richard Hurd have indicated that labor has responded to the need for education with extended apprenticeship programs and programs designed to educate workers in the areas of union leadership, public speaking, literacy, algebra, and computers. The National Joint Apprenticeship Training Program of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers & National Electrical Contractors Association has a $150 million annual training budget. Programs using formalized mentoring, such as the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP), have helped workers adapt to technological and work process changes while increasing wages and producing a 70 percent employment retention rate. Despite these efforts, many workers point to barriers such as lack of time, lack of financial resources, and distance to learning facilities as barriers to mobility chances. Combined with blue-collar values, these barriers impede career mobility among the working class.

Blue-collar workers face a number of obstacles in career mobility. Cultural values impede the desire for advancement and substitute the value of “good money” and “doing a good job” for mobility. The belief of not fitting into the white-collar culture increases resistance to seeking upward mobility. Cultural attitudes combined with organizational factors and changes in the corporate environment leave little chance for moving beyond the working class. Individuals who achieve upward mobility often experience a sense of being an outsider or misplaced.

Difficulties abound for the blue-collar worker seeking upward mobility. Blue-collar culture and class consciousness supply two of the primary obstacles to career advancement. Alfred Lubrano has described a “duality of consciousness” that exists among blue-collar workers who have become upwardly mobile, and he coins the descriptive term “straddlers” to reinforce their existence in both a blue-collar world and a white-collar one. Individuals from blue-collar backgrounds are governed by the cultural capital created by family and social setting. Conformity, obedience, and intolerance of other social classes are the characteristics possessed by a “good blue-collar worker” and are present in the home. Patricia Gurin and others suggest that this class consciousness is the basis of a blue-collar identity and helps establish the perception of a “place in society” and a sense of collectivism. Blue-collars workers who obtain upward mobility often find themselves in awkward social and work situations as the result of “cultural ignorance.” The identification with blue-collar values combined with economic difficulties and reduced opportunity impairs the mobility of most blue-collar workers. Mobility experts suggest that downward mobility has increased 7 percent in the last three decades and that upward mobility has had no significant increase. Blue-collar workers have less than a 30 percent chance of moving into white-collar jobs.

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  1. Bruderl, J., Preisendorfer, P. and Zeigler, R. 1993. “Upward Mobility in Organizations: The Effect of Hierarchy and Opportunity Structure.” European Sociological Review 9:173-188.
  2. DiPrete, T. A. 1993. “Individual Restructuring and the Mobility Response of American Workers in the 1980s.” American Sociological Review 58:74-96.
  3. Fletcher, B. Jr. and Hurd, R. W. 2001. “Overcoming Obstacles to Transformation.” Pp. 182-208 in Rekindling the Movement: Labor’s Quest for Relevance in the 21st Century, edited by L. Turner, H. C. Katz and R. W. Hurd. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  4. Form, W. and Putman, G. 1985. “Economic Cleavages in the American Working Class.” British Journal of Sociology 36:1-33.
  5. Gurin, P., Miller, A. H. and Gurin, G. 1980. “Stratum Identification and Consciousness.” Social Psychology Quarterly 43:30-47.
  6. Lubrano, A. 2004. Limbo: Blue-collar Roots, White-collar Dreams. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.