Will software ever become "blue collar" work?

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This has come up in a few past posts

But with every passing month or year, we gain more perspective. What do you think the outlook is for our work in these terms?

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I really don't care for this perspective. In my mind, there is a negative connotation with blue collar work amongst the "white-collars".

Coming from a lifetime of blue collar work, railroading, manufacturing, construction, I have had the fortune to live both lives. I will tell you, no, coding is not blue collar work. However, coding is brutally exhausting in a different way.

Just because the world of code is open to the "common person" does not mean it is blue collar. I am not working my ass off in a physical manner. I get the great pay, and the benefits of working in an office. I solve complex problems and build amazing systems for very large corporations. And guess what, I did not go to college for it. However, I am working my ass off in a mental way.

With my past experience, I will say that I have met some of the most brilliant people in my blue collar work. Some that would put our 10x engineers to shame if they ever met. Note of heavy sarcasm here please amongst the term 10x engineers.

I think we, as white collar workers need to realize we would not be where we are with out our blue collar brothers and sisters and vice versa. Yes, we may have different working conditions, but I will say that my life as a blue collar was much, much harder than that as a white collar. And no, coding is not or never will be considered blue collar work just because it is open to the "common man or woman". As far as I am concerned.

 

I have the same problem with the binary of 'skilled' and 'unskilled' work. All work takes practice and commitment to really get good at it. It seems to me like it's all just a way to overvalue a select few people's contributions by undervaluing a lot more people's hard work and dedication.

 

Beautifully said!

I could not agree more with you on this. There is always a symbiotic relationship that everyone needs to understand.

One can not do without the other. We all have to chase our passions and It is just fine if they differ. Let's not shame anyone for doing whatever they so choose to do.

 

I think some coding jobs will be. Things like front-end websites and simple back-end development are extremely common, and don't require a lot of knowledge/experience to do. But saying coding is a job is like saying using a saw is a job. There's varying degrees of expertise, applications, and kinds of saws and they are absolutely not all equal. Same goes for coding.

 

I think some coding jobs will be. Things like front-end websites and simple back-end development are extremely common, and don't require a lot of knowledge/experience to do.

Is the implication here that blue-collar jobs somehow require less specialized knowledge? If so, I couldn't disagree with you more...

 

The rest of my comment very obviously implies that there are varying degrees of expertise when using trade tools (ie. a saw), so no, I am not saying it doesn't require specialized knowledge. The implication was that certain types of development are extremely complex and very difficult to do effectively without formal education. The point was that code is a tool, not a job. Some people will be able to master the tool, some won't.

I see. I was perhaps a little confused by the wording. In my mind (to use your example) both coding and using a saw would be jobs. In that scenario, the code and the saw are the tools. Actions are not typically tools in that context.

That aside, I certainly see and understand your points. I can't help but feel it also raises another question: Do you foresee white-collar / blue-collar coders becoming a thing? Your reasoning seems to suggest this.

I am also intrigued by your choice of the phrase "trade tools." This seems to imply that trades are blue-collar, unless I am again misinterpreting.

In my mind (to use your example) both coding and using a saw would be jobs. In that scenario, the code and the saw are the tools. Actions are not typically tools in that context.

Both words are verbs and nouns, and in both cases they are tools to accomplish a goal or task. Neither of them are jobs on their own, but tools used to do a job. As a software engineer, you aren't hired to write code. You're hired to build something, and code is just a tool that it's done with. Just like "saw-er" isn't a job, but "carpenter" is.

Do you foresee white-collar / blue-collar coders becoming a thing? Your reasoning seems to suggest this.

Sort of. I don't think it'll be a "blue-collar" vs "white-collar" distinction, more of harder lines between the distinctions already present in the field. Software engineering is absolutely massive and broad, and the skills required to, say, write drivers or low level hardware interfacing code are entirely different and arguably more complex and specialized than, say, creating a website.

I am also intrigued by your choice of the phrase "trade tools." This seems to imply that trades are blue-collar, unless I am again misinterpreting.

Many trade jobs are considered blue-collar, yes. Not all blue-collar jobs are considered trades, not all trades are blue-collar. But there's a lot of overlap. It worked with the saw example I was going for, not some sort of generalized statement.

 

I think so, yes. I always have looked at myself as a “digital carpenter”. Software is only growing in size and scope in the world, and we are going to be more and more people in the industry to for fill the needs of said software. As the population grows, it’s perception as “blue-collar work software is only growing in size and scope in the world, and we are going to be more and more people in the industry to for fill the needs of said software. As the population grows, it’s perception as “blue-collar work, “ will, as well.

 

As someone who grew up in a family where blue-collar, in my case, heavy construction... Describing office work of any kind as "blue collar" is laughable. Spend a day digging ditches or running heavy equipment in horrible weather... Tell me if coding is blue-collar...
Wikipedia: "Blue-collar work may involve skilled or unskilled manufacturing, mining, sanitation, custodial work, textile manufacturing, power plant operations, farming, commercial fishing, landscaping, pest control, food processing, oil field work, waste disposal, and recycling, electrical, plumbing, construction, mechanic, maintenance, warehousing, shipping, technical installation, and many other types of physical work. Blue-collar work often involves something being physically built or maintained."

 

I think you're on to something here, but I disagree with your conclusion (or maybe it'd be more accurate that I disagree with the implications of how you phrased it).

I agree that Software Engineering will probably stay white-collar office work. I don't think coding will stay in the office.

For example, some of the leading movers in the "Right to Repair" movement aren't ivory-tower Free Software types - they're farmers who want to be able to crack open the code running their tractor because John Deer can't be bothered to fix the bug that's keeping it from working right.

Honestly, once we figure out how to teach coding as well as we teach auto mechanics, blue-collar workers are going to be all over that. Rebuilding a busted engine is every bit as complicated as most Python coding, we're just much, much better at teaching how to fix engines than we are teaching how to debug software.

 

I wish there was a way to help out peep's equipment when software stuff goes wrong. Unfortunately, I don't think Cat or JD is going to make whatever code they have open-source, as much as I'd like to git pull on a back hoe lol.

It sucks, because I remember back home one of my neighbors' carbine glitched out, and they had to pay some four-digit number to have a guy drive out and replace a circuit.

Yeah, this is super true. Fact is the newest heavy equipment have these problems all the time... Caterpillar in particular I know are more than..."insistent" companies don't try to fix it themselves or hack the machines. I think if they OSS that stuff the community would be able to fix so many of these issues so fast.

I think they might, but only as a last resort, and they'd have to be dragged every step of the way.

Right to Repair is thankfully much less of an ask: just don't try to actively prevent people from repairing the tools they buy :)

 

I am not a fan of equating office work to the hardcore physical jobs which are blue-collar if anything I respect the hell out of blue-collar workers willing to learn hi-tech.

But calling an office job blue collar is disrespectful of the physical labor and horrible toll those the types of jobs take on their bodies. If anything it's mitigating the effort/skills/tenacity/strength of those people doing those actual blue collar jobs.

I know how complicated rebuilding an engine can be, I did it with my dad, and he is wicked smart...people constantly underestimate how smart he is probably because he works in "just a blue collar job" they don't realize running dirt moving outfits he has learned to see the trigonometry and survey the land on the fly in his goddamn head... I can barely do those calculations on a calculator given an hour or two.

Developing isn't blue collar, I grew up blue collar, I've been blue collar, it's disrespectful to blue collar to call it that. It's my opinion and I expect it to be a contentious and polarizing one.

 

Also, them learning to code doesn't make coding blue collar it makes those badass blue collar workers wicked awesome. Now they are doing their blue-collar work and white collar hi-tech work with it. It's freaking awesome.

 

To clarify more I hope; the part I find laughable, the thing I've been saying is calling an office job blue collar is a joke and disrespectful to those who actually do blue collar jobs. Those who do blue collar jobs are almost certainly underestimated... But I would challenge anyone in tech to do what my dad does for a living before they ever call themselves blue collar.

It sounds like we mostly agree, but our terms don't line up.

I don't think "coding" and "developing software" are the same thing, and "Will coding become blue-collar?" really depends on what we mean by "coding".

If I'm understanding right, we both agree that writing software that's a product is white-collar office work, and that's unlikely to ever change.

"Coding" is just another tool, and I think it'll be part of blue-collar jobs as soon as we can either build better tools or figure out how to teach coding better.

It's kind of like trig. It used to be mostly the domain of architects and engineers, the blue-collar tradesmen mostly stuck to a few familiar angles. With the help of a pocket calculator, accurate tools, and a reference book, it's become a regular part of roofing, carpentry, landscaping, etc. You don't need a specialist anymore.

One point I think we disagree on is that I don't think blue-collar work has to be hard on your body. It's unquestionably hands on and physical, but I've always been suspicious that blue-collar work is as hard on the body as it is because we don't prioritize developing tools that protect the user over the long term, rather than anything intrinsic to the work itself.

I can certainly agree with your sentiment on there should be better tools to protect users... I mean my dad has been part of the constructions industry for many many decades and only recently have I heard workers caring more about taking care of their health and it not being "badass" or whatever to just work through the pain.

Yeah he learned to do that crazy mathematics in his head as a grader running that tractor, surveying from that highpoint with out lasers just using the stakes and shit. Also as job foreman needing to just seeing what needs to be done by the other heavy equipment while also moving dirt himself.

 

I love and respect the hell out of my Dad doing construction and mechanics his whole life, to this day at his age he still runs heavy equipment and runs the jobs. Tore up his body and he has serious physical health issues from his blue-collar job.

 

My own point of view on this is the one that both these article hint at up front, and then attempt to work around. First and foremost, that blue collar work is primarily done in person, using your body to work at building or breaking down physical objects.

Building houses, connecting wires and pipes, tearing down abandoned buildings, and planting fields are all work that bears strong metaphorical similarity to work we do in software engineering currently. Those similarities are, though, limited to metaphor and so I strongly disagree with the idea that the public will ever think of a SWE at a tech company as a "blue collar worker".

Where things get really interesting, though, is thinking about what "blue collar" work will look like in 10 years. Already, we're seeing firmware in farm tractors as a key battleground on the Right To Repair arguments worldwide, and I suspect this is the beginning of a trend that will continue. Because of this, I think it's blue collar work that will start to incorporate bits of software engineering, not the other way around. Though the public will never mistake an SWE-1 at Google for a blue collar worker, I think we're guaranteed to see blue collar workers who might be mistaken for SWEs because their fields come to demand technical skills. From the farmer who starts customizing their tractor firmware, to the factory worker tasked with controlling and maintaining the routines of the industrial robots, I think that blending is the way in which we'll start to see more overlap between these concepts.

 

Reading these two articles you linked to, @ben , provoked a lot of thoughts about how we even define "blue collar" work - let me try and break them down and then I'll post my own thoughts in a separate comment:

  1. Coming from an area where blue and white collar careers were both common, I've heard @stereobooster's point of view that blue collar work is a "job which requires low training (at least up front)... or people who get into complicated situation or lost their previous job" repeated a lot in my life. I disagree strongly with this point of view because I think it cheapens the level of knowledge and skill required to take on these jobs. A farmer with no knowledge will not produce a crop, and you sure don't want to hire an electrician or a plumber who just lost their job in an unrelated field and hasn't gotten any advance training. So, while I think this stereotype is common (and, humorously, actually an accurate description for software engineering these days), I view it as inaccurate for blue collar work.

  2. @bananabrann's article was very thought provoking and I think there's a lot to be gleaned from his idea of blue collar work and software engineering holding a shared future where you "reap the fruit of your own labor your skills and improvement must be accountable by only yourself." Using his definition, I think software engineering is totally moving towards blue collar work and will, indeed, benefit from doing so. I wish I interacted with more SWEs who treated their code as a house that must be maintained instead of an ethereal object that can be stood up once and remain perfect forever without maintenance.

Now, for my own thoughts, I'll post those separately.

 

What Percy hit and stereobooster completely missed is the division between skilled and unskilled trades. I mention it briefly in my most recent post while talking about the anti-academia bias in engineering today (Sorry for the self-promotion).

I don't think coding will ever be an unskilled job someone can walk-on and do. Some of the newer no code "build-a-site" work might qualify, but I think it will be an additional duty for an office worker... maybe some companies make it a position of its own, but probably not common.

That said, custom code will always be in at least a skilled trade arena, and I would argue it rides that line now. The difference is that there is also the concept of a "knowledge worker" which software DEFINITELY falls into. It's right beside Doctors, Lawyers and Scientists in that regard.

Just because there's never been a "blue collar" knowledge worker in the past, doesn't preclude it in the future. The fact that many people consider blue collar to require physical labor might slow it down, but eventually there will need to be an established difference between the person who implements a static marketing site vs the web application builder vs the native app creator vs the compiler coder vs the machine code specialist vs the medical technologist vs whatever you call the person responsible for life support software on a spacecraft.

I don't know which goes where or who is what... I just don't think it's necessarily a bad thing either.

 

I think it's important to note that in spite of lip service, societies generally no longer views one's education or even specialized skillset as the key factor that determines where in society a certain career or job description occupies. And these things are necessarily social constructs so they differ from place to place but generally the framework follows one's individual ability to affect the personal welfare of others and the amount of personal liability one takes on for outcomes experienced by others. In the US we've decided that doctors and lawyers generally have a lot of power in effectively determining quality of life and liberty and property in a fairly direct way and these positions are also individually liable for their individual malpractice. I don't think any developer job quite gets to that level of liability but where each individual workplace and title occupies in the social hierarchy also follows a similar framework. It's entirely possible that someone hustling gray hat SEO services on Fiverr has the same level of expertise and education as someone who makes 10 or 100x what they make and they may even use the same technologies in possibly similar ways none of that really matters in how we look at these things. In a service-oriented economy the old notions of white collar and blue collar leaves out a majority of the workforce anyway and since the divide is really between specific, specialized industries instead of a broad notion of "education level" it's not really a good way to describe what really ends up to be a barometer of some mixture of prestige, income, influence, and social importance, and that's really what any present day discussion white/blue collar work really is about, no?

 

I don't think that the entire industry will ever become truly "blue collar", but I do have plenty of tasks/days that feel pretty blue to me.

On any given day I might feel like one or more of these

  • Architect
  • Engineer
  • Mechanic
  • Librarian
  • Professional Googler
  • Politifian

Poster showing different emotions

 

So I found at least 3 comments which are like this:

  • I don't know how you define blue collar
  • blue collar is manual work
  • blue collar vs white collar

I defined blue collar in my article like this:

Blue collars sometimes defined as low skill job, often a manual labor. I would define it a bit another way - it is job which requires low training (at least up front), so people who can not afford university go to this job, or people who get into complicated situation or lost their previous job, basically when you tight on the budget and you need money right now, and you need to start now or ASAP and you don't have time, or better say privilege, to spent 5 years in university.

@ben it would be nice if you can provide a definition

 

I think what you're asking is if coding will ever become "low skilled" or rather less valued. Short answer is it already is in some places. It is also worthwhile looking at other highly valued white-collar sectors, e.g. journalism and game development, where the workers operate under horrendous and abusive conditions. Meanwhile, there are electricians, sanitation workers etc... who make nice salaries.

Globally, many software engineers work in very precarious, and poorly valued environments whether it's in China or Bulgaria. I think with advances/acceptance of remote work, there will be even more outsourcing of labor than there already is right now.

Journalists in the US have been organizing like hell, and the tech industry is slowly becoming more organized as well. Have a look at organizations like Tech Workers Coalition and Game Workers Union

Full disclosure, I am a founding member of the Berlin chapter of Tech Workers Coalition.

Get Organized!

 

In the UK we don't have the term "blue collar" really. Though could Developer be the next unskilled job?

No, I wouldn't say so.

Coder? Programmer? There are a lot of unskilled jobs that require basic coding and programming skills and they don't even know it. In the end, isn't basic - intermediate use of Excel technically coding?

 

Stop it with the white and blue. Check the Wikipedia-Article. It's clearly gold-collar!
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Designation_...

 

But i heard that only 10x developers get a gold collar 🤔

 

Damn! We've all been played. Alright @stereobooster , pack your bag, our show's over.

 

Hmmm, I really feel like the words blue collar / white collar work does both disservices, as it was initially used for simple jobs versus jobs that employers required a degree for. In today's age, while not all dev work requires a degree, they all are skilled jobs. So maybe we should just focus on the skilled laborer moniker instead?

 

I'm not sure what the definition of 'blue collar' is....I think coding/software development will continue to get more and more accessible. But I fear anything standardized enough to create a blue collar position will be automated away pretty quickly.

 

In my article I gave following definition:

Blue collars sometimes defined as low skill job, often a manual labor. I would define it a bit another way - it is job which requires low training (at least up front), so people who can not afford university go to this job, or people who get into complicated situation or lost their previous job, basically when you tight on the budget and you need money right now, and you need to start now or ASAP and you don't have time, or better say privilege, to spent 5 years in university.

 

I believe the term "blue collar work" is for jobs that require manual labor. In this sense of the word software will never become blue collar work.

I do believe software jobs will become more and more common in though. The accessibility of the field grows every day, and with newer generations being more "tech savvy" than the last, tech related jobs should be more common, and more people will apply to them.

I think the idea the above posts refer to is the idea software jobs will become more common, not that they will be more physical. Lets be real, most software jobs require you to be less physical :laugh:

 

There are some seriously gamechanging low code systems out these days that blow away what we've seen in the past. In a decent size business I have seen many developers but also a hybrid business/developer role. Someone that knows the domain and doesn't need to make a full on product. There's some level of differentiation that we might see. A lot of businesses globally just need someone to hook things together. I like the idea the role is increasingly democratized but I do think the scope and breadth of problems we can tackle can grow due to having people able to do the blue collar work.

 

Depends on what you mean by "blue collar". Typically, that precludes knowledge-work (aka work that requires domain-specific and/or generalized problem-solving skills). Once the knowledge/problem-solving component goes out of programming, there's really no point for programmers to exist at all let alone become blue collar: at that point, you're wholly in the realm of "replaceable by machines".

 

I think that in a lot of ways it already has and this is totally fine by me. I've always had a lot more fun coding as a mechanic, getting lots of different pieces to fit together and work in together, than an "engineer" per say. The reason I know this has not been embraced is coding interviews are still horribly theoretical and catered to those with a classical education by and large. Most organizations need to be honest with themselves and decide are we just going to use google/amazon/ibm/microsoft services to get to our goal or are we going to be writing our own algorithms and forging new pathways in computing. In my experience everyone interviews as though they are building image recognition but what they really want is someone that understands API's, protocols, performance, UI tooling, etc.

Case in point a lot more of us use React, rails, typescript, webpack, django etc. than contribute to it and that is totally OK. There are craftsman and there are engineers, we shouldn't be ashamed of that dichotomy. Soul of a New Machine has an amazing quote for this I just can't recall it at the moment.

I think some of the resistance comes from people thinking salaries are going to drop if this happens as well and I don't think that is necessarily true either. There are plenty of carpenters that make as much money as the person designing and constructing the table saw (probably even more in most cases). In fact oftentimes the craftsman are better at using the tool than those that built it.

 

100% but not by the current definition ... Currently white collar == office job blue collar == manual labor... But are we really any different than a virtual construction crew ?

 

In my article I gave following definition:

Blue collars sometimes defined as low skill job, often a manual labor. I would define it a bit another way - it is job which requires low training (at least up front), so people who can not afford university go to this job, or people who get into complicated situation or lost their previous job, basically when you tight on the budget and you need money right now, and you need to start now or ASAP and you don't have time, or better say privilege, to spent 5 years in university.

 
 
 

Some probably will, before they are outmoded altogether, but I think a lot will stick around and be better for those that have left.

 

I love development. It doesn't matter if it's going to be blue, white, or a rainbow of colors, I'd always do it ☺️ Wouldn't you?

 

Software development is its own thing. You can’t directly compare it to any other one profession or trade, it’s a profession unto itself.

 

Interesting topic and discussion.

Going to share it with colleagues tomorrow morning and get their impressions.

However, I do feel software development could become a blue collar job someday.

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