50 Shades of Blue—the Line is Blurring Between Blue- and White-Collar Workers in Modern Manufacturing

Jason Chester
By Jason Chester | August 6, 2020
Director of Global Channel Programs

Fact checked by Stephen O'Reilly

Are you considered a blue-collar or white-collar worker? Do you work with your hands or your mind? Are you the brains of the operation? Or the brawn? Good news, if you feel that you are neither, or both, or that these terms no longer apply, then you are not alone: the line between the two is blurring in modern manufacturing. And what we do here at InfinityQS—quality intelligence with statistical process control (SPC) software—is right in the middle of this sea change.
The line between the two is blurring to the point that you are probably neither…there are many shades of blue in the gradient of responsibilities that now separates the traditional “office worker” with a white collar from the “plant worker” with a blue collar. Good riddance.
Manufacturing workers—whether they’re on the plant floor or in an office—now all use (and require) modern information technology and applications to do their jobs effectively and to keep up with today’s demands on manufacturing.
Blue- and White-Collar Workers on Plant Floor

Tools of the Trade

In a traditional sense, white collar tools of the trade have always been the mind, paperwork, endless meetings, and planning and strategizing. As well as, of course, the plethora of enterprise applications to support those functions, such as ERP, MES, CRM, BI, CMS, BPM, and many other TLAs! Blue collar tools of the trade were manual labor, a pair of greasy overalls and a spanner (wrench to Americans), a can-do attitude, and perhaps a lunch pail (lunch box to us Brits). Get your orders for the day and hit the plant floor. Let the white collars worry about where the company is going, and how it’s going to get there.
As manufacturing has evolved, so has the front line—the plant floor. Operators work with a high degree of automated equipment in today’s manufacturing environment. Gone are the days of, for example, the worker with a funnel, a bottle and a jug of whiskey—which they would then fill up, screw on the cap, and slap a label onto. Unless you’re an extreme case of an artisan producer, that’s ineffective production—it’s inefficient, less-than-productive, and in most cases not profitable.
So, needless to say, tasks like those are highly automated today. Operators remain on the plant floor, though, fixing machines when something goes wrong, keeping an eye on the automated processes, doing quality checks—you know, essentially the pulse of the operation. They are increasingly interacting with digital control technologies. Their world is becoming increasingly digital. This certainly doesn’t sound like blue collar to me.
Modern Factory Worker with Tablet

Upskilled Workers

The process of developing new skills in order to do the required work is what we call “upskilling.” Most plant-floor workers have been climbing up the ladder—the spanner has been replaced with a tablet, the greasy overalls now a crisp uniform. Many manufacturing professionals straddle the line between the office and the plant floor, working with Human Machine Interfaces and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems and the like. They know the difference between ERP and MES.

What Do We Call Them?

Furthermore, these workers blurring the line between the blue- and white-collar labels understand the value of technology and are comfortable with it. They use it in their everyday lives. From smartphones to tablets, from online banking to social media, from sports results to online news. Whew!
Since their trade is no longer just brawn and sweat, but is firmly entrenched in brain power, what do we call them? They are no longer” blue-collar” workers. Maybe we just refer them as manufacturing professionals, or something like that. Let’s think about that while we continue on.
Modern SPC Tools on Plant Floor

They Need the Right Modern Manufacturing Tools

Their back-office counterparts have become increasingly referred to as information workers, or knowledge workers. They have at their disposal the modern technology solutions that are essential for them to do their work effectively. Plant floor workers are also increasingly becoming information and knowledge workers. But here’s the rub: they don’t have access to anywhere near the same information technology capabilities.
Imagine walking around the offices of a large manufacturing organization and finding salespeople managing customers’ information using a rolodex, or a planning meeting using acetates on an overhead projector (remember those?), or the procurement office issuing Purchase Orders using a Telex machine (remember those as well?). 
Now, imagine walking the plant floor at that same manufacturer. The production supervisor is writing machine settings down for the next shift on a board next to the machine. The quality engineer is writing the results of a critical quality check on a clipboard with a blunt pencil. A bunch of people stand around murmuring, scratching their heads, wondering why a machine isn’t working properly.
Factory Workers 
In the first thought experiment you would be forgiven to think that this is obviously an absurd example. And, of course, you’re right; it is. But the second thought experiment is far from absurd. In fact, it is a reality I come across all the time.
It seems amazing (if not a little infuriating) to me that there are still companies where this level of disparity between the plant floor and the back office still exists—wherein the office has all the technology it needs while the plant floor makes do with outdated methods and technology. But this is changing, thank goodness.

Times are Changing

There was once a concern, and probably rightly so, that if you introduced technology to blue-collar workers you would then have to teach them how to use a mouse and a keyboard, and they would all be just a bit intimidated by it. That’s not the case anymore. Nowadays, these “shades-of-blue” workers are now the latest generations (Generation X, Millennials, Zoomers) — and they are very “technology literate.” They have grown up with technology and are therefore more familiar and comfortable with it. And they often have an aptitude for learning to work with new technology, be it hardware or software.
In their personal lives, the world is at their fingertips with modern technology. They want to know the football score; they just pull out their mobile phone and open the app that gives them their sports information. They might share it with friends via social media, comment on it, and then while they’re at it see what the rest of the family is doing on their trip to Australia…checking out photos and messages from them. They’re an aware workforce, aware socially, technically and professionally. And technology, rather than being an alien thing, is just the opposite. Try taking a smartphone away from a younger worker of today and they will act and feel like they’ve had a limb removed.
A New Generation of Factory Workers 
Technology in the workplace, for these shades-of-blue workers, is no longer a hurdle to overcome; it’s an expectation—both for them and for the organizations who employ them. One might even say that it’s a bit strange to them when technology is NOT available to them.
Imagine a quality manager in a queue to buy lunch. They can bring up social media and see what their friends ate for dinner last night halfway around the world. Yet they can’t see what the quality performance of line 3 was on shift 2, unless they go and take a look at that clipboard.

Where is This Going?

So, let’s look at this from the manufacturers’ perspective. If you’ve got people that are more adept at the technology and more inclined to use the information it provides them to make better decisions, then what you have is a “knowledge worker.” If you have these people in your employ, why would you want to dumb them down by not giving them the tools they need to shine or flourish in their roles?
Think about it. You’ve got this wonderfully technology-literate person who uses IT in all aspects of their life, but then they come to work and they have to write things down with pencil on paper and try to extract some meaning from it without the right tools. It no longer makes any sense.
Can you feel the sands shifting? I can! Manufacturing is shifting away from blue- and white-collar designations and blurring the lines between “types” of workers to one, indivisible “knowledge worker,” not only capable of handling technology, but expecting it and asking for it.
Modern Manufacturing with InfinityQS Quality Solutions 
It’s inevitable. Embrace the future. InfinityQS quality solutions, powered by our industry-leading Statistical Process Control (SPC) engine, deliver unparalleled visibility into your processes and intelligence to lead you on the path to constant improvement.
With our solutions, manufacturers gain strategic insights to make data-driven decisions that improve product quality, decrease costs and risk, and meet compliance requirements. InfinityQS enables today’s manufacturers to convert quality from a problem into a competitive advantage.
Welcome the fifty-shades-of-blue workers into your manufacturing world and give them the tools they need to do their jobs—and watch your business transform for the better.
Take advantage of the technology at your fingertips today: contact one of our account managers (1.800.772.7978 or via our website) for more information.

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