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Too Much to Ask: The Color of Your Collar

The blue collar/white collar dichotomy has come to define the working world: two hemispheres in opposition, each necessary in their own way but completely different in all respects. We’ve even got a diametrically opposed image for each: the gritty, oil-stained blue collar grunt and the pristine, starched-shirt white collar desk jockey. It seems to most like these two imaginary workers couldn’t be any more different when it comes to motivation, tasks, and personality.

In truth, the two worlds aren’t as different as many people imagine. As someone who’s spent time in both, I can tell you there are plenty of lessons I picked up from my more physical, hands on blue-collar background that came in handy once I entered the corporate world. I don’t mean wrestling with toner, either: the fundamental takeaways from each job sphere are remarkably similar. It was hard to see these similarities when I was breaking my back on a construction site, but once I made it to that corner office, I realized how well working with my hands prepared me to thrive in the button-down world.

Results are Paramount 

Any working situation is all about results: whether they’re ones you can hold in your hands or a readout on a computer screen. For a blue collar laborer, the quality of the day’s work is usually a little more tangible: a strongly built structure, ready to stand in any weather or conditions. If the effort wasn’t there, the results could be disastrous, and responsibility belonged to the hands that built it.

That level of accountability was a great motivator during my days doing manual labor. I’ve always held onto the knowledge that every project I work on has my signature on it, a fact that goes for white collar work as well. Even a well-crafted email gives a measure of pride, when it’s done without spilling your coffee. No matter where your work happens, you’re only as good as your results.

Punch In, Punch Out 

Another thing I learned in the blue-collar world is that your work, while crucial, can never define you entirely. You punch your card, you do what you’re there to do as best as you can do it, then when it’s time to punch out, you leave it behind. The best kind of worker is one that’s well-rounded–they can compartmentalize their lives so that personal and professional obligations don’t bleed into each other.

Don’t get me wrong, I live for my work. But having outside interests keeps one balanced, and ever prepared to walk into the office (or building site) fresh and ready every morning. Burnout is a real, measured effect of overworking, so it’s best to know when it’s time to punch out and regroup.

Money Matters – Especially Yours

Another thing you learn when working construction: every penny counts. Some blue collar jobs don’t have the pay security you get with a desk job, so needing to miss time might mean missing a paycheck as well. When that’s the case, you need to budget to survive. Living within your means is something everyone needs to do, but when those means don’t come reliably, you learn to make the most of what you have.

Maximizing my own personal budget as a laborer turned out to be great preparation for working within project budgets as a white-collar manager. Wearing wingtips to work rather than work boots didn’t make the money move any differently. Learning to manage funds when overruns simply weren’t an option keeps you in line, even when the money isn’t coming out of your pocket. That ability has proven to be one of the strongest assets in my white collar life, and it came straight from my blue collar background.

Building a Team

A blue collar worksite looks a lot different from a white collar one, and I’m not just talking about the level of dirt and grime. When the main qualifications for the job are two able hands and a solid spine, not advanced degrees, you find people from all walks of life. When it’s time to deliver, though, that array of people needs to come together and execute, sometimes in extremely dangerous conditions. Working in a situation where miscommunication can mean severe injury or death, the importance of coming together as a team, no matter who you were, was hammered into all of our heads.

White collar jobs are no different. You might not have your physical well-being on the line, but the need to execute on an big initiative is crucial all the same. It takes teamwork to bring a major idea to life, whether raising a building or rolling out a new software system. Every job requires team members to communicate, collaborate, and leave their fears behind. Coalescing a team of often highly differentiated people all around one common task is the lifeblood of a successful job, no matter where it’s happening.

It might not have been a prestigious business school, but climbing actual ladders in the blue collar world taught me a lot more about ascending the corporate ladder than some might assume. Making your way in the corporate world takes a lot of the same attributes you find on a construction site: results, responsibility, and teamwork. At the end of the day, our work goals aren’t so different. If you’re the kind of person who wants to do a good job, you can hit that mark no matter the color of your collar.

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Richard Van Staten
Richard Van Staten is the CEO of Quantam Solutions in Detriot, Michigan.