What Is Blue Collar?

The term "blue-collar" refers to a type of employment. Blue-collar jobs are typically classified as involving manual labor and compensation by an hourly wage. Some fields that fall into this category include construction, manufacturing, maintenance, and mining. Those who have this sort of job are characterized as members of the working class.

Key Takeaways

  • Blue-collar jobs are considered “working class” jobs, which are typically manual labor and paid hourly.
  • The term originated in the 1920s when blue-collar workers—such as those in mining and construction—wore darker color clothes (e.g. jeans, overalls, etc.) to hide dirt. 
  • Today, the term "blue-collar" has evolved, and it's common to find workers in this role who are formally educated, skilled, and highly paid.
  • For example, nuclear technicians, elevator installers, and subway operators earn over $70,000 per year, which is higher than what the average college graduate earns after graduation. 

Understanding Blue Collar

Classifying workers by the color of their shirts dates back to the early 1920s. At the time, many of those in trade occupations (coal miners, masons, bricklayers, boilermakers, welders) 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.

Blue-collar workers are in contrast to white-collar employees, men (and increasingly women) who held salaried positions and performed non-manual labor in an office setting—and invariably wore clean, pressed white shirts, which they could afford to launder frequently.

Other Colored-Collar Workers

Other types of colored collar categories of workers include pink collar, green collar, gold collar, and gray collar. Unlike white and blue collars, the other categories are not derived from the workers wearing any particular color of shirts.

Green-collar workers refer to employees in the conservation and sustainability sectors. Pink collars are employees who work in service fields—store salespeople, waiters, secretaries, receptionists, or elementary school teachers (the word "pink" referring to the fact that women have traditionally held these posts).

Gold collars are found in specialized fields of law and medicine—a reference, perhaps, to the high salaries these professions command. Gray collars refer to those, like engineers, who are officially white-collar but perform blue-collar tasks regularly as part of their jobs.

Special Considerations 

Originally, a blue-collar job did not require the worker to have much education or even expertise in the slated job field—again, in contrast to a white-collar position, which demanded at least a high-school diploma and, in later decades, some college. Today, however, the term "blue-collar" has evolved, and it's common to find workers in this role who are formally educated, skilled, and highly paid.

Although blue-collared work still entails maintaining or building something, advancements in technology have seen more blue-collar workers in industries such as aeronautics, film-making, electronics, and energy. Although they may not require a four-year college degree, some blue-collar jobs require highly skilled personnel, with specialized training and a license or certificate from an apprenticeship program or trade school.

Example of Blue Collar

Do not mistake today's blue-collar jobs for easy to land, easy to keep, or low-paying. And not all blue-collar occupations pay less than white-collar jobs, either. Workers in some trades fields earn more annually than salaried counterparts.

For example, nuclear technicians, elevator installers, and subway operators earn over $70,000 per year, which is higher than what the average college graduate earns after graduation. Since most blue-collar jobs pay by the hour, working overtime could mean that a blue-collar worker can earn six figures in any given year. Some blue-collar jobs also pay by the project or follow a salary scheme. In short, in the 21st century, the color of your collar doesn't necessarily dictate the level of your income. 

Here are the top 10 paying blue-collar jobs per the Bureau of Labor Statistics based on median annual salary: 

  1. Nuclear power reactor operator—$100,990
  2. Police and detective front-line supervisors—$94,950
  3. Power distributor and dispatcher—$88,910
  4. Detective and criminal investigators—$86,030
  5. Elevator installers and repairers—$83,250
  6. Powerhouse, substation, and relay electrical and electronics repairers—$81,280
  7. Power plant operators—$79,370
  8. First-line supervisors of firefighting and prevention workers—$82,010
  9. Transit and railroad police—$71,120
  10. Gas plant operators—$71,050