Role reversal: how blue-collar jobs are proving more lucrative than traditional office work

Skilled blue-collar workers are out-earning office workers as the labor shortage intensifies. But vocational training has lagged behind.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By WANG Yuezhu, ZHOU Shuqi


ZHAO Li became a land surveyor after going to vocational school. Unlike many unskilled construction jobs, the work requires much engineering knowledge and years of training. Three years in, he is still at entry-level but already makes 10,000 yuan (US$1,489) a month, no less than what an average graduate makes out of China’s top universities. A senior surveyor can earn nearly twice as much.

His experience would have been very different if he had entered the workforce 10 years earlier. LI Jianguo remembers being put to work almost immediately when he started as a mechanic at a large steel plant in 2010. It was hard, dirty, mindless work. His first paycheck was 1,750 yuan a month, barely enough for room and board. Around 2016, he recalls, the market started to change.

“We were working with SMS Siemag. They offered 30,000 yuan a month to hire one of us on the spot,” he said.

By then, he had acquired advanced engineering certificates and been promoted to manager. Now, he is senior enough to oversee large projects and makes up to 200,000 yuan in a good year.

The average salary for blue-collar workers reached 80,000 yuan a year in 2022, according to CIIC, a human resource consultancy. For skilled workers, annual pays start at 100,000 yuan. In Shanghai, blue-collar workers in the high-tech sector make 170,000 yuan a year, almost 40 percent higher than the city’s average.

The nature of blue-collar jobs and the skills required have changed too. Unlike their predecessors who toiled on loud, dirty and sometimes dangerous factory floors, blue-collar workers today are more likely to handle automated machines in closely monitored environments. Li said the steel plant is greener and more efficient than 10 years ago, and mechanics spend more time in monitoring rooms than on the factory floor.

Despite higher pay and a better work environment, factories have struggled to find enough workers. Of the 100 jobs with the most severe labor shortage in Q4 2021, 43 were in manufacturing, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

The gap is more significant for skilled labor, which makes up only about 30 percent of the total labor force. By some estimates, the high-tech sector will face a shortfall of 30 million skilled workers by 2025.

Glorified assembly-line worker

Meanwhile, college graduates who are either too proud or not handy enough to work in factories have a hard time landing well-paying office jobs. In 2021, the average starting salary for college graduates was only 5,833 yuan a month, half of what Zhao is paid as a junior construction surveyor and no more than what many unskilled migrant workers make. Weak demand has continued into this year. In the first quarter, hiring for fresh graduates dropped to the lowest since 2019.

The urban unemployment rate for those aged 16-24 hit 18.2 percent in May. The figure is likely worse for new graduates.

Job satisfaction is low, too. “My last job, essentially, was no different from any mindless factory work,” said XIONG Yongqi, who worked at a small e-commerce company in Chengdu.

His daily tasks, he said, included selecting forty items for promotion, writing fifty fake reviews, and posting three social media updates. He left the job in less than a year. By then, he was making only 5,000 yuan a month.

Even elite college graduates sometimes feel their jobs are nothing more than glorified assembly-line work. WU Dian, who interned at a top law firm, went through rounds of interviews to get the job but spent most of her days on repetitive, mind-numbing tasks, such as document review and proofreading.

The work didn’t involve any critical thinking, nor did it require anything she learned from school. Her intern class included an undergraduate from Tsinghua University, a graduate student from Peking University, and a handful from other top law schools.

Both Xiong and Wu feel a reverence for white-collar jobs, and the insistence on choosing them over well-paying blue-collar ones is rooted in outdated social norms.

“Would I have made more drilling holes and tightening screws? Most likely. But it sounds fancier to ‘work in e-commerce’,” Xiong said.

It all comes down to supply and demand

Behind the job market dichotomy, many economic forces are at play. Population growth has slowed. China has become more urbanized. The fewer young workers who would have gone to factories 10 years ago now have more options to work in big cities as admin workers, customer service associates and bank tellers – in other words, jobs that deal with people instead of machines.

The choice is made easier as higher education becomes more accessible and affordable. If a college degree means the difference between a dusty factory floor and well-lit, air-conditioned office buildings, it is no surprise that young people are signing up, even if so-called white-collar jobs do not necessarily require special skills or pay well.

Vocational training, however, hasn’t caught up with the demand of modern, automated factories in terms of quantity or quality. It didn’t help that large companies were slow to eliminate college degree requirements for hiring. Many even outright reject vocational school graduates against their own self-interest.

The narrowing or even reversal of the blue-versus-white-collar pay gap is not limited to fresh graduates. In fact, it is already manifesting itself among mid-career professionals and will likely become more prominent as this generation of young workers advances in their careers.

Skilled and experienced blue-collar workers like Li Jianguo enjoy better job security and earning potential the more senior they get, while middle managers, even at large companies, are facing ageism and narrowing career prospects.

Talk of “getting fired at 35” is prevalent in big tech. The recent tech crackdowns have also made workers realize, belatedly, how vulnerable their jobs are to boom and bust.

Better vocational training is believed to be the key to steering the labor force from low-paying white-collar jobs to high-tech manufacturing. But higher average salaries and good placement figures alone – the percentage of vocational school students who are employed immediately after graduation has been consistently over 90 percent over the past 10 years – are not enough to change the minds of millions of young people who are brought up to revere doctors, lawyers and CEOs.

“Vocational schools are considered inferior to higher education and less important, which has fundamentally influenced education policies, ” said Xiong Binqi, Director at 21 Century Education Research Institute. “It must change. Vocational schools should be given comparable priority and resources. Vocational school admission should get as much attention as college admission.”

The evolution of jobs may change minds as much as money or policies. Traditional blue and white-collar jobs will be redefined, both in terms of content and experience.

Factory workers in the future may spend most of their work day crunching numbers and making decisions. At the same time, document reviewing or even basic diagnostics will be done by artificial intelligence, which will replace human office workers in thousands of other repetitive and error-prone tasks. As the nature of blue and white jobs converge, so will their pay. In the end, workers and employers will likely follow the invisible hand of the market.