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What It’s Like for Blue-Collar Guys Who Become White-Collar Later in Life

‘I bust my ass for 20 years, and now that I sit on that same ass all day, people tend to believe I am smarter than what I used to be’

Karl Grueschow had just entered his twenties and begun a college career when the unexpected happened: His father committed suicide. Grueschow’s own life went into a tailspin, and he decided he couldn’t handle both school and life at the same time. So he dropped out of college and “focused on staying busy,” he tells MEL. He took a job as a delivery driver.

Suddenly, it was 13 years later, and he was at the same trucking company. He’d seen the birth of his son, but also several injuries that left him sore and tired. He was 33 years old.

“I ended up working mostly overnights, so I rarely saw my wife, and I slept most of the day with the baby. I had basically resigned myself to having missed my chance at something better — having a degree, a higher-paying job,” he explains.

Even after moving to Denver to be closer to his wife’s family, Grueschow felt the prospect of a better life was nonexistent. Then his son got a bit older, and Grueschow decided to take a couple classes at the local community college to see if he “could handle school again.”  

“I aced both classes. I did the same the next semester, and aced those classes as well. Small wins kept coming, and I really enjoyed what I was doing,” he says. “Once I got past the core classes,” he discovered that “engineering was what I’d always been meant to do.” Moreover, he wanted to be “someone my kids looked up to. … I remembered how hard things were growing up with both parents in blue-collar jobs, and I wanted my kids to have opportunities that I didn’t have,” he says.

So, five years later, with the support of his wife, Grueschow became the first in his family to graduate college. He got a BS in mechanical engineering. 

With a new job in IT, Grueschow is happy he’s able to better support his wife, he says, and he’s no longer working nights or physically exhausted after work. And even though he loves his new job and the people he works with, he still recalls his work as a delivery driver fondly. “It was a rewarding job,” he says. “We lifted, on average, something like 10,000 pounds of stuff per day — it was basically a paid gym membership.”

What’s the key to transition out of blue-collar work later in life? “If you’re moving to something that is a better fit for who you are as a person, you’ll do just fine,” Grueschow says. “If you’re just jumping ship for money, it might be more of a struggle.”

And he’s right — not all guys find the move to white-collar work so seamless, especially when the transition is forced.

There are a few reasons for this, some of which come down to the basic structure of how these different workspaces operate, according to Staci McIntosh, a VP of Human Resources in Las Vegas. “Blue-collar roles are usually in very authoritative structures. When men move from blue-collar to white-collar roles, they tend to assume that with their new role comes a lot of positional power. But in large organizations, that’s not always true,” she tells MEL. “Men in these situations need to learn to lead with influence, not power. They need to be more collaborative, and they need to understand that to get what they need they might have to leverage other departments or leaders.”  

In other words, simply working hard and doing the work can get you to a better position in a blue-collar workspace. But white-collar work involves more office politics, which can be difficult to navigate.

“They need to learn to personally create value for the organization, because [in white-collar work] their contribution to the organization won’t always be clearly defined,” McIntosh explains.

“In a blue-collar role, your value in the organization is very clear. Your boss will usually see tangible results because of the work you are assigned. But in white-collar roles, you have to constantly be on the lookout for how you can be adding value. Your boss won’t always tell you exactly what to do, so you need to be proactive in finding work and in making sure they know what you are doing to help the organization.”  

Dr. Debbie Heiser, a psychologist who specializes in aging and retirement, says that coming from a family of blue-collar workers, she’s seen these transitions firsthand.

“The one shift I’ve noticed is most difficult [when men] go from blue-collar work like police officer or firefighter: there is a lot of time spent with colleagues in a ‘brotherly’ way,” she tells MEL. “Eating together, spending long hours together and supporting one another in life and death or dangerous situations. This isn’t the same schedule or interpersonal interaction in the white-collar environment and [it] can be difficult to transition to.”

Despite the pitfalls of office politics and loss of a brotherly connection, Heiser says the benefits of moving to white-collar work are clear. First and foremost, the move to white-collar is a choice, “rather than a job settled for.”

“Many retire from their blue-collar job and receive a pension, which makes the transition to white-collar work seem even better, because there isn’t as much stress financially,” she says. “Or they may have worked hard to achieve a degree needed for the work, and this makes the white-collar work take on an elevated positive feeling and sense of accomplishment.”

As Grueschow advised, the most important thing is to move into a job where you’re able to maintain your sense of identity beyond the job, Heiser says.

“The transition to a new job, whether blue-collar or white-collar, is easier if your identity is not your job,” she says, adding that “all sorts of insecurities can crop up” when men make this transition.

I reached out to a few other men who’ve made the transition later in life. As with Grueschow, it can be a bumpy road, and the destination isn’t always fulfilling.

Dave, 41, went from nuclear power security to a nuclear power engineer. By his late thirties, “My knees and back weren’t happy, and frankly I could feel my mind turning to mush from sitting around staring at walls for 12 hours a night.” So he finished his master’s and scored a management position at his own company. The toughest part was learning to delegate and getting over his own social anxiety. “Even after two years,” he says now, “there’s a healthy dose of impostor syndrome going on. I was very nervous about meeting and talking to new people, people who knew more than me.”

Mike Bordeau, 43, lost his job as a delivery driver, went back to school and became a network administrator. “I wanted to provide a bright future for my kids, and [driver jobs] don’t give you much job security,” he explains. “Experience only matters when you have a degree.” Today, he’s surprised by how differently people treat him in his new role: “As a delivery driver, people wouldn’t talk to me the same way or wouldn’t ask for advice and stuff. I’m the same person with a different position but it seems like people respect me more because of what I do. I bust my ass for 20-some years with physically demanding jobs, and now that I sit on that same ass all day, people tend to believe I am smarter than what I used to be.”

Still, Bordeau calls it the best decision he could have made. “It made me more confident and proud of myself for choosing the long road with a more rewarding result. Age should never stop you from trying to better yourself.”

As blue-collar work dries up and the pressure for higher education remains high, more and more people will end up making the same transition as Karl, Mike and Dave. It’s not an easy transition, but having “a focus on internal abilities and strengths is helpful,” Heiser says.

“Having an identity that acknowledges skill sets, intelligence and personality all can be applied to a variety of jobs … rather than identifying as a retired police officer or retired firefighter,” she says. A person should identify as “brave, honest, fair and a problem solver, which can work very well in a variety of white-collar positions.”   

Heiser brings up the case of her uncle, who moved from police officer to politician and then to entrepreneur. “His identity was always that he was a hard worker, fair and ethical. That transition was not difficult because there was not a shift in identity. There was only a shift in job.”