Programmers, developers, software engineers, web designers – whatever you want to call them – may be the new blue collar workers. Over the last decade the internet has become an integral part of all of our lives. Name a day that you didn’t use the internet for something. Can you even point to a one hour period of time where the internet wasn’t present in your life? It’s hard if not impossible. As the way we navigate the world and live our lives becomes more reliant on the internet the people who build these systems we use every day are becoming more numerous. Just a few years ago being involved with web development would associate you with the professional class or white collar workers. Now we have a whole class of people who are a mixed bag of college grads and college dropouts building the Ubers, Facebooks, and Snapchats of the world. Having worked in the industry since 2007 I’m starting to wonder if we’re becoming the new blue collar worker and whether that’s good or not.
A blue collar worker is someone who gets their hands dirty. Someone who may work a dead-end job, a low paying job, or a job that doesn’t require a college degree. Trying to peg exactly what a blue collar worker is, is difficult but generally it’s a combination of the kind of labor they do (usually manual or repetitive stuff), pay that’s low (but not always), a dead-end job (meaning no room for advancement to the top of the corporate ladder), and the training needed to get the job done (college degree, informal training, apprenticeship). Do programmers fit into this definition? I think so.
Manual or repetitive labor
Developers do repetitive work. We always talk about automating our jobs and how the best developer is a lazy one but at the end of the day we all know we’re doing repetitive boring tasks a lot of the time. Not just physically by typing on a keyboard all day long but mentally as well. We continue to solve the same abstract problems but try to create outcomes that satisfy business requirements. We build MVC web apps, for example, that all work using the same principles but will either get you a taxi or save your latest selfie to the cloud. Two totally different outcomes solved using the same technique. I think that qualifies as repetitive.
Web developers – even the best of us – are notoriously underpaid by startups. Even when working in a corporate environment we might get paid six figures for work that’s bringing the company 8 figures in revenue. They get a great discount and all they need to do is let us dress in casual clothes, provide some free drinks in the fridge, and maybe put a ping pong table or a nerf gun that no one uses somewhere around the office. Yeah, I think we’re looking at a new kind of blue collar.
Dead end jobs
Programming, especially for the web, is a dead end job. The job itself is ageist. Once you get past about 35 you had better get yourself into a management position or have a side hustle because once you reach 40 and you’re still writing code you’re either going to get fired for the last time in your life or you’ll be stuck in the same position until you retire. Programming is the kind of job where you take off like a rocket ship and then land on an endless plateau unless you take that first management position (if you’re even offered it) the first chance you get.
No need for a degree
If you have a degree in computer science, congratulations. You can be a professor and work in the real white collar positions of programming. Otherwise you don’t need any training whatsoever to become a developer. Just show up, know how to write code, and you’re good to go. This is also what contributes to the low pay epidemic. You get a lot of people with little to no training in programming out looking for jobs with imposter syndrome. They may be incredibly skilled and talented but they have no way of knowing it so they take the equivalent of a McDonald’s manager’s salary and are happy for a few years because they get to dress casual and play ping pong (except they don’t). Once you lowball yourself into a salary it’s hard to move up from there. It’ll take at least another 5 years to get what you were worth 5 years before. You’ll always be trying to catch up to your experience.
Are programmers the new blue collar?
Honestly, probably not… yet. But if things continue to go the way they are they will be. The magic of programming is feeling less like magic and more like the work of people who are fallible and make mistakes. There’s also a whole class of programmer that I haven’t mentioned here that can never be considered blue collar. So I suppose my conclusion here is that we might be becoming an endangered species. Just be on the lookout for signs of trouble ahead. I’m starting to see them and if you do too start thinking of how you’re going to turn things around if/when things go south for this profession.