Blue collar vs. white: What’s the better payoff?

College students weigh the benefits of resume-building internships and bank account-building jobs

Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
During her Friday afternoon shift at Redrock Canyon Grill in downtown Silver Spring, server Yodet Berhane describes a dish to a customer.

Yodet Berhane has bused tables and filed legal papers. She has worn serving uniforms and sleek office clothes. As a college student juggling the needs to earn money and gain resume-building office experiences, Berhane has had a taste of both the blue-collar and white-collar worlds.

With an increasingly competitive job market, college students must often choose between blue-collar jobs that will bring in the dough and unpaid summer internships that will impress future employers.

The quest to obtain internships has intensified as never before. Vault Inc., a New York career-information company, recently did a survey of more than 500 students in which 62 percent said they planned to get an internship next summer — a 21 percent increase from last year.

‘‘It used to be that internships provided an enhancement to one’s record,” said Mark Oldman, co-founder of Vault Inc. ‘‘Now, they’re an essential steppingstone to career success.”

Employers overwhelmingly say that obtaining experience in a particular field of interest looks best on a resume; internships are usually preferable over blue-collar work. However, Berhane and others argue that blue-collar jobs provide invaluable lessons that cannot be learned in an office.

The hard blue-collar workday

Dan Greene, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park, has interned at a law firm, waited tables and worked in landscaping. Of these jobs, he says that working in the office was the easiest; the real eye-opening experiences occurred doing blue-collar work.

‘‘Waiting tables is, hands down, the most stressful thing I’ve ever done,” said Greene. ‘‘There are 20 different people yelling at you for six hours at a time. I’ve had to deal with angry people on the phone [at the firm], but that doesn’t even compare to face to face.”

Berhane agrees. She recalls a customer who demanded a new waitress after Berhane spilled water on the woman’s hand. ‘‘She told me she never wanted me to serve her again,” she said. ‘‘Sometimes, people want to pick on the slightest problem; you have to put that giddy smile on your face even if you’re having a bad day.”

The job is more stressful than office work because servers are under constant pressure to keep up a smooth demeanor while turning tables quickly and sending through accurate orders at the right times, Greene said. ‘‘Management is more demanding. You have more of a deadline; everything needs to be immediate,” he said. ‘‘On top of it all, you know you’re easily replaceable.”

The human connection

Both Greene and Berhane say that their blue-collar jobs put them in daily contact with people they would never have met in an office.

‘‘I was the only white guy and probably the only naturalized citizen,” said Greene of his experiences landscaping. ‘‘Some of the kids who were younger than me were living on their own. The job made me more humble and definitely broadened my perspective on the immigrant experience.”

The kitchen workers at the restaurant made a similar impression on Berhane. ‘‘I’ve never seen anyone work so hard in my life,” she said. ‘‘I’ve gained so much respect for them.”

She remembers feeling personally affected after some of the workers lost their jobs when management found out they were undocumented.

‘‘In an office environment, you learn how to carry yourself in a professional manner but don’t interact with real people,” she said, recalling her summer as a legal receptionist. ‘‘After the paperwork is done, how’re you gonna relate to your client if they’re an illegal immigrant?”

Blue vs. white

About half the internships posted on University of Maryland, College Park’s Web site are unpaid, a figure that reflects the sacrifice of many interns: paychecks. For students who can afford to work for free, many employers strongly advise internships over paid blue-collar jobs.

‘‘In terms of career growth in the long run, getting an internship is a better time investment,” said Pandit Wright, senior executive president for human resources at Discovery Communications Inc. in Silver Spring. ‘‘You can establish networks, create mentoring relationships and decide whether you want to be in a particular industry.”

However, some believe that blue-collar experience can be the key to success in the white-collar world. Barbara Rodriguez, labor exchange administrator for Montgomery Works’ Division of Workforce Development, recalls hiring a woman as an employment counselor who had worked in dry cleaning but lacked office experience.

‘‘She ended up being one of the best employees we ever had,” Rodriguez said. ‘‘It was the way she approached people, handled customers and communicated with people from very diverse backgrounds. She had great customer service skills.”

Fattening the resume

Resume building is a perpetual concern of many college students, and the pressure to appear experienced has been motivating students to seek internships at younger ages. In the last five years, there has been a 30 percent increase in high school students obtaining internships, according to Vault Inc. research estimates.

Among college students, the internship craze has expanded to an even greater degree. The Shriver Center of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has seen a 50 percent increase in internship and co-op placements over the past 3 years, according to Christine Routzahn, associate director for professional practice at the Shriver Center.

Some say that the pressure these students feel is all too real. ‘‘Things have changed over the last 10 years. If you don’t incorporate a well-rounded experience at the university level, finding a job after college will be a lot harder,” said Mark Kenyon, assistant director for experiential learning at the UMCP’s career center. ‘‘They’re not just looking for 4.0 GPAs anymore.”

Wright said that she is much less likely to hire someone without internship experience now than several years ago.

‘‘Someone who just came out of college with no experience whatsoever would have a very poor chance of getting a job,” she said, estimating that the desire for internships began swelling four years ago. ‘‘The number of people in that situation who are hired decreases every year as it gets more competitive.”