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What Color Are Your IT Team Members' Collars?

We're accustomed to thinking of IT as "white collar" positions -- office jobs with little or no manual labor. But I've started revisiting that presumption in recent customer engagements. Many of my customers' IT decision makers are struggling to motivate their team, to update their skills and to get critical projects underway -- and sometimes, a portion of that struggle comes from not appropriately understanding/managing "blue collar" and "white collar" employees.

So what's the difference?

First, I'm not making a value judgment between "white collar" and "blue collar." I'm not presenting one as more valuable or more desirable than the other. But there are certain characteristics associated with both -- and both offer pros and cons to the organization. Understanding what your team consists of is crucial to motivating them, and to getting the most from those resources. In some cases, you may find that you have "white collar" expectations, but that you're treating your team like "blue collar" workers -- meaning the disconnect between what you want and what you get is at least partially your fault as a leader.

The following table summarizes some of the key, observable traits for each type of employee. Note that these are pretty atomic -- you can't pick and choose from Column A and Column B. These all tend to go together, so getting the results you want means making sure a given employee can line up completely in one column or the other. In other words, if you're providing the resources a "blue collar" person would need, don't act surprised when they don't exhibit the behavior of a "white collar" colleague!



Goes to trade conferences

Doesn't go to trade conferences

Regularly receives training to update and expand skills; training is as likely to be aligned with long-term career development as with immediate project needs

Doesn't receive training as regularly; training may be more aligned with immediate projects than with long-term development

Is passionate about what they do -- often has hobbies that relate to their job

Is less passionate about the job per se; may still love tech, but doesn't have hobbies that mirror their work

Constantly looks for, and suggests, ways to improve processes, tools and products

Less likely to suggest improvements; may primarily suggest improvements that reduce their own work effort

Wants to learn new technology often for the sake of knowing it

Less interested in learning new work-related technologies unless there's a specific and immediate production requirement to do so

Maintains an updated resume, even when they're not looking for a job or promotion

Tends to update the resume only when it's time to go job-hunting, or when a promotion is available

Steps up quickly when new, strategic skills are needed -- and may in fact already be up on what the organization needs

Usually willing to learn new skills, but only because you've asked them to -- tends to be a bit less initiative when it comes to breadth of knowledge outside the scope of their job

I'll acknowledge that the terms "white collar" and "blue collar" are pretty loaded, so I'll tell you how I've been thinking of them.

White collar, to me, is someone who has a career. Maybe they won't always be with the same company, but they'll always be doing the same type of job -- and they want to invest in it. They're concerned about the state of their resume, and always looking to improve it -- even if some skill they see as important isn't something their current employer needs. They maintain a resume, even for internal promotion purposes.

Blue collar, by contrast, is someone who has a job. Maybe they haven't been doing IT all their lives, and maybe they don't plan on doing it for the rest of their working lives. It's a job, hopefully one they enjoy, but it's just a job. They're not in love with it. Learning new skills to support some production requirement is fine, but they're not going to run around randomly learning stuff just for the sake of doing so.

Neither categories in any way implies a better employee. Some job positions are, by their nature, one or the other; other job positions could be filled by someone with either attitude. This isn't about how productive someone is, how dedicated they are or how hard they work. This is about underlying attitudes on the part of both employee and employer.

You see how this goes? If you've got folks who seem to just not care, who just want to do their job and then go home and play Xbox -- well, look and see if they're being treated like a blue-collar worker. Are you investing in their skills? Are they passionate about what they do? Are you treating them like a career resource or a replaceable cog in the machine? You can't dish out blue-collar treatment and expect white-collar behavior.

As with all stories, there are two sides. For some folks in IT, it's just a job. They don't understand why you'd expect it to be anything else. They don't do it because they can't help doing it; they do IT because it allows them to support their families and lifestyle. That's "blue collar," and there's nothing in the world wrong with it -- so long as you and your employees both agree on what you expect from them.

It could also be that you've got passionate, career-minded people on your staff who just act like they don't care -- because they're not feeling the love from you. A career is a long-term thing; to get in the career mindset, you've got to be willing to invest in that career yourself. That means sending folks to conferences, to training classes and so on --and not just so they can learn a new skill that supports and immediate production requirement. That's not investing, it's responding to a need.

There are pros and cons, as I've said, to either category of worker. White collar workers are often at the lead of new projects because they've been building the necessary skills and knowledge on their own time. Having them means you can move more quickly, and leverage skills that, technically, you haven't paid for yet. But white collar workers require more maintenance, and can be higher-overhead. Blue collar workers are the dedicated, get-it-done folks who work hard and don't always demand as much from their employer -- but don't be upset when they haven't been studying up on new technologies on their own time, just so they can be ready when and if you suddenly need them.

In reality, most employers will want a good mix of attitudes in their environment -- and will provide the right mix of benefits, investment and support to create and nurture both those attitudes.

Posted by Don Jones on 03/23/2012 at 1:14 PM


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