White collar worldview 101
August 13, 2014 4:52 PM   Subscribe

My husband, a mechanical engineer from the rural midwest, recently moved to a position in the white-collar engineering workforce - what does he need to know to thrive?

My husband grew up in the rural midwest, went to college, and became a mechanical engineer. He's been working at a shipyard with a lot of blue collar folks where his 'handy farmboy' background stood him in great stead. He recently moved to a position with an almost exclusively white-collar workforce. He likes the change but has become aware of all the received wisdom he doesn't have since his family and his friends back home were farmers and factory workers.

I come from white-collar stock and I've been able to help him with specific issues and give him insights into my worldview, but he's looking for more general information and wants to head off any misunderstandings or clashes by preparing now as well as get a more general understanding that isn't predicated on my specific history/experience.

We've got the book Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams on hold at the library for him to read, but he's keenly interested in other insights and resources for him to ease this transition.

Do you have pointers, books, web sites/forums, or other resources for him to give him insight on this transition?
posted by bookdragoness to Work & Money (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Just to be sure: where was the shipyard, and where is the white-collar job he has now?
posted by batter_my_heart at 5:18 PM on August 13, 2014

Both are in southeast Virginia. If any answers need more specifics, please memail me.
posted by bookdragoness at 5:27 PM on August 13, 2014

Everything is political, no one is your friend. Be polite and gracious but do not assume that anyone has your best interests at heart. Eventually you'll find out who you can and who you can't trust, but begin by offering respect but not trust.
posted by janey47 at 5:33 PM on August 13, 2014 [12 favorites]

Things that matter to this answer:
1) how far along in his career is your husband?
2) is the company a multinational and how big is it?

If he has a new assignment in an engineering group far from the actual welding and pipe-fitting he will very likely bring some insight into how ships are made into the group. In some large multinationals there are engineers who have design ability of a sort, but have very limited ability to figure out how to build those designs. These are skills that can be leveraged. People raised on farms have to design things that can be built and those talents can be of help where the help is both appreciated and used.

Large multinationals, especially those with government customers, often develop a ninny-pinny political culture that can be exceedingly frustrating and difficult to navigate. Therefore if he is relatively young he should think of the first "indoors" assignment as the place he's going to learn that, and in two years he is going to move to another group that he'll have heard about and which wants him. It is there where knowledge of the culture will be of the most help. He will be able to rely on some of the people he has worked with before to understand that group. This can't really be prepared for, and there is an East Coast shipbuilder I know well where the political culture is utterly cut-throat - but the people who survive it are quite good. They usually avoid direct confrontation and with expertise get their ideas adopted by socializing them widely.

Therefore: expect to talk with him a lot about what is going on in the office culture.

If he's in a R&D group, the culture is likely to be a bit more relaxed than if he is in operations or design.

You will notice in all of this I don't call into question his ability to design or integrate or whatever. Had he not those things he would not have got the new assignment.
posted by jet_silver at 5:45 PM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is slightly out of the box, but your husband's situation was the subject of a seventies sitcom called Arnie which to my surprise has clips on youtube. I have a memory of it being good (Of course, Herschel Bernardi was always good). I don't know if it would be useful, but it might be diverting.

Best of luck to him. (For what it's worth, I'd be fascinated on his take on the experience a year or so from now. Plenty of BS this-is-my-life blogs out there, but this sounds like it could be really interesting. Not that I would recommend his doing anything like that - not with his real name, at least. )
posted by IndigoJones at 5:45 PM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is awful, but in some white-collar circles there is a pervasive condescension towards blue-collar folk. My dad was a mechanic at a train company, and after slowly working his way up and finishing college, he became a project manager. He told me that his co-workers really had no idea what the people in the shop valued, or what they were worth; whenever it came to contracts it was always "Don't let THEM get too much". Dad basically ignored the haters and got a reputation for being steady and reliable and the mechanics in the shop preferred to work with him because "DadFreedom is a good guy, he hasn't changed and we can trust him."

Incidentally, this is also one of the many reasons I look up to my dad, so my advice would be don't get involved in office, or office-shop politics.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:03 PM on August 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would encourage him to read two classics. The Art of War by Sun-Tzu and The Prince by Machiavelli.

Leadership skills with his direct reports. I am not a believer in Situational Leadership course many organizations try to foist off on employees. It is a management course. Leadership is based on principles, sometimes it is personal principles, oft times it organizational culture and values. Learn them and live them.

One of the best I had was based on Blake & Mouton's Managerial Grid. It is more popular in Europe I am told, so look for it

Assuming it is a mid-manager level, he ought to be skilled in negotiation tactics and strategies. I came from farmer stock, and I was raised in the oil patches of West Texas. Keep in mind, that most office politics takes the form of high school cliques because very few people get training in organizational politics.

Mid-levels have to negotiate with senior executives on goals and objectives. Mid-levels have to negotiate with direct reports to get the work done. It is a matter of priorities that will have to be negotiated...particularly in a matrixed organization.
posted by choragus at 6:06 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a few blue-to-white collar friends who've made very successful careers in large multi-national engineering firms. Their success? They leverage the "I work harder than my peers" blue collar work ethic. In other words, they don't shy away from it, they make it an asset. With the right positioning, they've successfully made it part of their corporate identity. "Yeah, I grew up in a different part of town than you did; you see it as a weakness, I view it as a strength. While you're all running off to play golf on Friday afternoon, I'm working my ass off to get the job done." (So go eff yourself)

I'm a small-town kid working in a big-town career, and I can vouch for this. People will judge you based on the image you project.

Good luck!
posted by flyoverme at 6:36 PM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a white-collar engineer it's best to avoid doing hands-on work. From your description it sounds like he might be too eager to jump in and manually fix things. He should avoid doing this for a few reasons: 1. the technicians can do it more cheaply, 2. it won't help him advance further (he should build technical and management skills, not hands-on skills), 3. he will get oil stains on his nice dress clothes.

Blue-collar / technician experience is a big plus, for reasons including knowing the technology better (due to more hours spent putting stuff together) and better relationships with the technicians.

I don't know how political the office is. General advice for office politics: dress nicely (a bit better than average for your level), don't say anything negative about anyone (especially management), manage expectations (underestimate how much you can do, but describe what you can do in a positive way), and be friendly with coworkers (eat lunch with the people you work with, ideally with people one level up).

Some white-collar attitudes: 1. You can afford anything, but are very frugal because it's the responsible thing to do, not because you have to be. 2. You do the job because it's fun, not because you get paid. 3. Never act "tough" - only the police and the poor use physical threats. The world is basically safe and law-following. 4. Higher education is a bargain (due to increased earning power) and should be pursued as much as possible.

Good luck! It's much harder to get fired than to get hired, so he will be fine.
posted by sninctown at 7:42 PM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've linked this before on the Green-- The Unwritten Laws of Engineering-- written in 1944 and still in print.

On a more cynical note, The 48 Laws of Power shows what came out of Pandora's box.

Watch some good shows and movies about backstabbing office politics-- House of Cards Swimming with Sharks (1994),
posted by ohshenandoah at 7:53 PM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

This sounds trivial but may not be: pay super close attention to his wardrobe and grooming. Get better brands, and make sure they fit. Get a GOOD haircut. What do others in his office wear for shoes, watches (if they still have watches), wallets, briefcases, even pens.

I'm constantly amazed how sensitive people are to those sorts of visual cues about class and (frankly) wealth, and how much they matter in the respect work and opinions are given.
posted by anastasiav at 8:25 PM on August 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

Does he want to present as someone who is not blue-collar or coming from a working-class/blue-collar background, or does he want to diminish any downside from presenting as someone with blue-collar roots? Those are two different things.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:22 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Straight out of 1500's, but start using a thick moisturizing lotion on the hands. Handshakes are the first tactile impression.
posted by batter_my_heart at 10:52 PM on August 13, 2014

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unbearable. I met, in the years 1984 and ’85, two such men.

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.
From David Foster Wallace's The Pale King.
posted by mbrock at 2:48 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow, thanks for all the responses!

A couple answers to questions that have arisen:
1) how far along in his career is your husband?

He has a couple years of experience but has no direct reports or managerial duties. They're talking about developing him as a systems engineer and eventually Subject Matter Expert (SME) / jack-of-all-trades. He knows some of the people he's working with already from college and they've been talking him up for a while in anticipation of him coming, so he's got a lot of credibility already. He is very competent.

2) is the company a multinational and how big is it?

This is federal employment; the new position is in a working-capital funded activity with a couple hundred employees.

Does he want to present as someone who is not blue-collar or coming from a working-class/blue-collar background, or does he want to diminish any downside from presenting as someone with blue-collar roots?

The latter - he sees a lot of benefit in his background (like what flyoverme mentions) but is looking for ways - without giving up his roots - to be more at-home and head off any cultural clashes.
posted by bookdragoness at 6:15 AM on August 14, 2014

As a white-collar engineer it's best to avoid doing hands-on work.

This, second, third, and fourthed.

A friend has a masters in computer science and a Virginia electricians license. He does side electrical jobs on weekends, and helped pay for his undergrad pulling cable etc over the summers.

I worked with him (at possibly your husband's previous employer.. ) and he did lots of hands-on stuff (rewire this, move that, etc). And he hated it. He wanted to write code and run projects, but got a lot of grunt work instead (because he knew how to do it, and had a strong "get shit done" attitude).

So he left and at his new job, doesn't do any of that in his new position.

So, yeah, be willing to work and get stuff done, but don't sell out and get pigeonholed as the goto guy for grunt work just because you know how, if it isn't want you want to do.
posted by k5.user at 7:29 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding the grooming/visual cues advice -- he's no longer doing hands-on stuff on the job, but if he's still the head handyman at home/has a workbench/enjoys hobbies that may make his hands and nails greasy and rough-looking, he'll want to pay close attention to that. If he has a wedding ring, he should definitely wear it at work. Well-kept, late-model cars, current smartphones/other tech devices are signifiers as well.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:29 AM on August 14, 2014

As an update, his most useful paradigm shift so far has been to view work as "college where they pay me to be here" and learn/work/etc. As per the advice above, he wears classic, name-brand clothing, good personal grooming, etc. and it's stood him in good stead.
posted by bookdragoness at 12:58 PM on December 5, 2014

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