Essay by Judith McLean, 2014
When was the last time you sought out diverse points of view? How was it when you worked or played with others with deeply diverse interests, values? Or, do you usually stick to your own ‘group’? An Organizational Behaviour professor from UBC’s Sauder School of Business recently shed light and challenged our class of 55 (the majority being from Hong Kong, Singapore or Germany) about how we approach the notion of diversity. Sandra Robinson shared her ideas in an on-line seminar,
We often think that diversity is ideal in teams and most organizations promote this ideal. However we need to recognize that whereas diversity can create divergent viewpoints, skills, and perspectives which is excellent for many tasks, diversity can also interfere with communication and ease that makes working in the group desirable and efficient.
It is also important to note that not all diversity is the same. Surface diversity- which reflects visible differences- might matter in the beginning as people tend to gravitate to similar others- may not be at all relevant later when people know each other well. In contrast, deep diversity- which reflects differences in values and assumptions- may actually pose the most serious difficulties, but often isn’t noticed until significant time working together has passed.[bolded mine] 1
I have a new project unfolding in 2015 and it’s making me look at how diverse groups work together, or don’t. This essay is not about affirmative action, nor is it about inviting new immigrants to the table. This essay is not really about class or gender. It is about an area of diversity not discussed very much. How easy can it be for different coloured collar workers to work and learn together?
My dad, Jim, was definitely Blue collar. According to a 2007 Silicon Valley blogger who wrote about varied coloured collars:
Blue Collar: Refers to manual or technical labor, such as in a factory or in technical maintenance “trades.” Workers are members of the working class who perform manual labor and earn an hourly wage. They may be skilled or unskilled, and may involve factory work, building and construction trades, law enforcement, mechanical work, maintenance or technical installations.2
Dad was unskilled but a hard working miner, then baker, printer and machinist. He was also an orphan, a rebel, and an authority-defying loner. Playing the ‘game’ or ‘brown-nosing’ was neither in his skill set nor in his ambition. He never trusted White collar job holders. Class lines were laid down long ago for Jim and he knew not to cross that line.
My mom, Alice, was definitely Pink collar, as a cleaner, then usher who ended her low rung career in retail sales; repeatedly putting clothing, dropped by customers, back on the rack. She deferred to management, never reaping the glory of her hard work. The blogger described …“pink collar”.
These occupations are relatively safe, clean and traditionally held by females, and aren’t considered as well-paid or prestigious as white-collar jobs. Neither do they require the same kind of professional training as white-collar jobs do. Some sample jobs: waitress, florist, medical assistant, receptionist, tutor, babysitter, maid, nanny, cosmetologist and other low-level positions in the service industry.2
Neither parent finished high school, anchoring them to the low end of their collared areas and maintaining their status of poor working class.
I learned last week that many workers I hope to entice into the Associations’ classes we organize also never finished high school. Although Jim could have earned more at a supervisory level, his distrust of others blocked any upward career transitions. Alice never believed she deserved a higher rank. Many of those I hope to invite into our 2015 classes are unskilled Blue Collar floor covering installers, or retired trades-workers now selling or manufacturing flooring or building supplies. Some fear they don’t have what it takes to learn and master new skills. Their low trust levels seem to match my parents.
My Multi-coloured Collar Career
The majority of my early career between the ages 15 to 32 was Pink collar. I started out as a cashier (in candy, then shoes and moved up to travel).
After my Pitman Shorthand course, I got more jobs typing and filing in collections, auto finance, and later serving very White collared senior executive in utilities, engineering and computer systems.
When I clerked in the personnel office at BC Hydro, I met and married Victor, a Blue collar lineman who later became a highly skilled journeyman carpenter.
Moonlighting on the weekends, I moved from a pink collar day job to a white collar sales job on the weekends. I worked for a savvy real estate developer who converted and then sold strata apartments in Kitsilano and North Vancouver. I sometimes lived in the buildings he converted and worked as his janitor (Blue collar). I almost got torched with unhappy, about-to-be displaced tenants thrusting their aerosol cans down the chute with matches.
With Victor, when I wasn’t working, I learned to swear, drink beer and boogie at the Breakers on the weekends. We seldom wore collars on weekends. He wore turtlenecks, tight pants and I wore low cut tops, short skirts and disco boots. During the week he worked hard, dynamiting mountain areas, pouring concrete and finishing beautiful wood projects. The toll on his back and knees was high. I saved my knees and decided post-secondary education might be in the cards, even though my parents thought higher education was a rip off. One boss, a psychiatrist believed enough in me to front the tuition fees for two courses at UBC.
I left the Blue collar zone after I divorced Victor and started university full time in 1983, where I met my second husband, Thomas. He rode a motorbike, drank a lot of scotch, strongly believed in social justice, and left his floor covering job to return to his calling as a United Church minister. Through his call to Ministry he’d been through a rite of passage unique to society. He wore a white dress (called an alb) and his round collar was definitely White.
Thomas encouraged me to move into the White collar area of justice and social development. I’m not sure what colour collar justice work is; it seemed heart expanding and heart wrenching simultaneously. Our goals: to reduce military arms, ease poverty, and end family violence were noble yet unattainable.
No longer wanting to be the wife of a theology professor, I moved out of Thomas’s tiny studio at Vancouver’s School of Theology. Though my pay was low, the significance was high as I worked in community development with seniors, aboriginals, and those who were marginalized or disabled. After earning my Masters in 1988, I dispensed federal funds to worthwhile health promotion projects in BC and AB. Those agency administrators treated me like a serious White collar executive, as did my boss, Rita. She trusted me to make wise decisions and she usually agreed with my recommendations for the then federal Minister of Health. Rita, was the brains behind the Minister’s messages. The blogger describes the White Collar:
This type of job refers to a salaried professional or a person whose job is clerical in nature, typically what you call a “desk job”. White collar workers are usually salaried professionals who do work that is expectedly less “laborious” but typically more highly paid than blue-collar workers. White collar posts are seen in the medical, legal, administrative or clerical fields. … 2
In the 1980’s, the pink steno pool drained when most workers got answering machines and laptops and most White collared workers had to do their own typing and reception work. A few bookkeepers kept their clerical posts by learning more software programs and figuring out how to design web pages. Only very senior officials commanded executive secretaries. If you had political acumen, you learned never to cross a secretary of a high powered white collar executive, or to upset the bookkeeper who cut your pay cheque. Their collars are pink, their stealth remained uncanny.
Almost at the same time in history, the Do It Yourself movement began to grow. Whether it was Ikea’s self-assembly of furnishings, or building patio decks from Home Depot, many White collared folks were discovering the joy of getting off the couch and working with their hands to build or renovate. The sub-trades workers moonlighted and profited off those lacking the ability to read blueprints or follow instruction manuals.
My final husband Douglas, whom I married in 1992, was definitely White collar as a college senior executive. He was also blue collar, as a cattle breeder in his free time. By day he was making a difference in educating adults in the trades, in the arts and preparing Aboriginal adults for legal, environmental and administrative leadership. He gently pushed me into the classroom as facilitator of learning for those considered high risk learners. I could influence learners in their second or third chance at a new career. He gave up cattle breeding as we travelled to see more of the world and to try to make a difference in higher levels of discourse – political party work, environmental concerns and researching history and the Arts.
Later in my career, as an employment counsellor, I tried diligently to refer more unemployed of all ages and genders into Blue collar work. I knew that they could make more money and earn higher respect than from those pink collared posts as spa assistants and manicurists who have to depend on tips to earn a living. I remember how tips grew with the depth of tops at the supper club in the 1970s. The numbers of women entering and staying in the trades remain small, yet the blue collar wages remain considerably higher. A top floor covering wage is $33/hour in Alberta. According to a recent Alberta labour report on average wages for Canadian Trades jobs has electricians starting at $24/hour or $39/hour at the top end 3; and cable workers earning as high as $39/hour in Calgary, according to a national report 4 In 2012 Forest Wickman wrote about more colours entering the picture,
While the terms white-collar and blue-collar seem to derive from the actual color of workers’ clothes, there are some more recent spin-off phrases that lack any non-figurative meaning. In the late 1970s, the writer and social critic Louise Kappe Howe popularized pink collar workers as a term for those women consigned to work as nurses, secretaries and elementary school teachers. Meanwhile the environmental movement gave rise to “green-collar workers” (who work in conservation and sustainability), and the 1980s yielded a class of “gold-collar workers” (who work in specialized fields like law, engineering, and finance, or, according to a different definition, in the service industry). As the population ages, we may see more “grey-collar workers” (who work into their 60s). And the latest entrants are the “no-collar workers”—tech-industry professionals who eschew collars altogether. 5
You could say I worked all colours in the early 1970s: pink (Monday to Friday at BC Hydro and one short gig as a server at the Cave supper club and part time reception for the developer); blue (eves and some weekends as janitor) and white (weekend sales) where I earned considerable commissions.
I realized, since the mid 1990’s I’ve met a lot of unemployed Gold-collar workers (lawyers, financial advisors, and engineers) who are now seeking Pink and Blue collar opportunities, both unskilled and skilled to support their families. I’ve seen young “no-collar” optimists join “green-collars” shouting “No Fracking Way” to protect common drinking water.
Have we moved on from the vertical hierarchical system of separation between the collared workers? Can the Blues stop mistrusting the Whites? Can the Pinks regain their sense of power to join the other colours? I believe that no one colour is better than another. As a famous actor would say, “It is the brain, the little gray cells on which one must rely. One must seek the truth within–not without.” ~ Poirot” Agatha Christie. 6
I’ve added more Grey to my own colour collection. Let’s hope the increased palette can really make a difference in our upcoming education sessions. Can I change the attitudes of my learning candidates from mistrust and resignation to hope and optimism for their futures?
1 UBC seminar, November 2014
retrieved Dec 24, 2014
4 http://www.livingin-canada.com/wages-for-trades-jobs-canada.htm retrieved Dec 24, 2014
6 http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/poirot retrieved Dec 28, 2014.