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Reviving Blue Collar Work: 4 Myths About the Skilled Trades

“Consider the reality of today’s job market. We have a massive skills gap. Even with record unemployment, millions of skilled jobs are unfilled because no one is trained or willing to do them. Meanwhile unemployment among college graduates is at an all-time high, and the majority of those graduates with jobs are not even working in their field of study. Plus, they owe a trillion dollars in student loans. A trillion! And still, we push a four-year college degree as the best way for the most people to find a successful career?” -Mike Rowe

For better or for worse, what we do for a living often defines us. It’s one of the first questions we ask people when we meet them for the first time. It’s where we will end up spending 90,000 hours of our life, over the course of 40-some years. Unfortunately, most people count themselves as unhappy with their work (by two to one worldwide!). Pop culture endlessly makes fun of the drone-like office employee, and yet that’s where most of us are.

Is there a better way? Are there careers that would engage us, provide for us, and make us happier? The answer is a resounding yes, but with an important caveat: young men should expand their search for such a career beyond the white collar gigs that are pitched to most of us from our first day of secondary ed. For modern high school students, the default path is graduating from high school, going on to a four-year college, and then finding work in an office (in fact, there are nearly twice as many business degrees handed out as any other single degree). But college simply isn’t for everyone. And neither is a lifetime of sitting at a desk. Luckily, there’s a world of satisfying, good paying jobs beyond the cubicle wall.

Today we will begin a 3-part series encouraging young men (or older men looking for a career change) to consider learning a trade. In this first article, I’ll point out four of the common myths and stereotypes surrounding the trades. In the second article, I’ll get into the benefits of being in the trades (of which there are many). After that, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty about how to find careers in skilled labor. Then once the series is done, we’ll do a bunch of So You Want My Job interviews with skilled laborers in order to get a personal, inside look at what it’s really like to work as a tradesman.

Let’s get started by exploring the myths that have made the path of blue collar work something most young men don’t even contemplate taking.

The 4 Myths of Skilled Labor

Welders, plumbers, electricians, machinists — they’re in higher demand now, and have greater benefits, than they ever have. While our nation endures record unemployment for young people, there are literally thousands upon thousands of trades jobs available (very good jobs, mind you) that go untaken because there aren’t skilled laborers to take them.

This wasn’t always the case, though. A century ago, the nation’s workforce looked much different. In 1900, 38% of all workers were farmers, with another 31% in other trades such as mining, manufacturing, construction, etc. Only about 30% of the workforce labored in service industries (defined as providing intangible goods). Fast forward 100 years, and you see almost the exact reverse. In 1999, over 75% of the labor pool worked in the service industry (most often in an office), and farming saw a precipitous decline to a mere 3%, and other trades down to 19%.

While the number of laborers in the skilled trades has sharply declined, there’s still a great need for this type of work. These blue collar men and women literally keep our nation’s infrastructure intact – from our electrical systems, to our plumbing, and even the nuts and bolts that keep our buildings together. There is an ever-widening skills gap occurring in our nation because of the fact that young people aren’t considering those careers. This means there are good jobs available, but no talent to fill them. It’s for this reason that Mike Rowe, former host of the popular show Dirty Jobs, is advocating for a return to blue collar work through his foundation and scholarship fund. And it’s not just him; high schools across the country have begun to recognize the need for skilled work, and are becoming career training centers rather than simply liberal arts institutions that exist solely to prepare students for college. State politicians are campaigning and recruiting on behalf of construction companies, because state-funded projects simply can’t find tradesmen to weld or to install elevators.

There is good work and good money to be had in the trades, so why aren’t more young people picking up their hard hats? I talked with Kevin Simpson from Pickens Technical College, as well as a couple folks from Emily Griffith Technical College (both here in the Denver area), to find out their take. What do these colleges see as the main culprit? Stereotypes. Our nation’s workers are holding on to stereotypes about blue collar work and about trades that may have been true fifty years ago, but simply aren’t the case anymore. There are a number of myths that folks hold about skilled trades careers; let’s take a look and get to work dismantling them:

Myth #1: Blue-collar work is “beneath” white-collar work.

“My plea, then, is that the country school should make farm labor and all labor honorable; should dignify it; should show that the environment of the country furnishes inexhaustible resources for intellectual life.” -Francis Parker, The Country School Problem, 1897

“Blue collar and white collar are two sides of the same coin, and as soon as we view one as more valuable than the other, we’ll have infrastructure that falls down, we’ll have a skills gap.” -Mike Rowe

Since ancient times, manual labor has been looked upon as a job for slaves; for the lesser. The upper classes did their work with their minds — philosophized, ran cities and nations, sold goods (though for a long time even merchants were looked down upon, since in handling money they were inferior to those who made their living purely through cognition). Egyptians, Greeks, white Americans in the 1800s — these groups of people spurned physical labor, and forced others to do it for them. It was hard, and as our human tendency is to seek comfort where we can, it was a mark of status to be above it.

During the industrialization period at the turn of the 20th century, manual labor lost some of its stigma. It was where the economy was going, it was where most of the jobs were, and there was the sense of it being absolutely essential to the building up of the country’s quickly expanding roads and cities. As learning a trade was a definite step up from being a cog in the factory system that had arisen in the 1800s, skilled craftsmen gained a greater measure of respect.

After WWII, however, more and more folks began enrolling in 4-year colleges, spurred on in large part by vets getting their tuition taken care of by the US government through the GI Bill. Virtually unlimited free education? Who wouldn’t take that deal? If you could make a living with your mind and not have to physically work hard, all the better.

As the 4-year education trend gained steam, teachers and administrators began to play more of an advisory role towards students, helping them decide where to go, which colleges they could get into, etc. These counselors guided their best and brightest students towards prestigious 4-year institutions, while shuttling poorer performing students towards tech or vocational schools. Learning a trade became thought of as the career track for those who couldn’t hack it in college, and no young man wanted to think of himself as second-rate.

The increasing number of college graduates coincided with an economy that was shifting from manufacturing and agriculture to a more intellectual and service-oriented market. Today, over three-quarters of Americans work in some kind of white collar position.

Thus, with the image of blue collar work diminishing and the market for white collar jobs expanding, it began to be cultural dogma that if a young person wanted a good, respectable, well-paying job, the only option was to go to college. More education was always seen as better, the assumption being that the more education someone has, the smarter they are, and the better job or life they’ll have later on. Trades, on the other hand, often require less schooling (by about half, in most cases, but sometimes as little as a third or quarter as much), and so this career path became associated with lesser prospects for success.

Thus, by the latter third of the 20th century, both the respectability and desirability of learning a trade had greatly diminished, while the distance between white and blue collar workers had exponentially grown.

Yet this belief that different work means lesser work, is hardly inviolable. And it’s about time we questioned it, and asked, “What defines ‘better’ anyway, in terms of a career?” Trades jobs have in many cases become better paying and more stable than most office jobs. In the past, it was a sign of cultural status to be a businessman rather than a lowly factory worker. As our economy shifted to the service sector, the difference between wages and quality of life was great enough that being a businessman really was a better job. But today, in many trades or blue collar professions, those gaps are simply no longer present based on how we define good jobs — largely in terms of pay, stability, autonomy, benefits, work-life balance, etc.

Further, learning a trade need not mean that you’re not cut out for college, or that your mind is second-rate. You can be quite smart and still choose to make your living with your hands. The idea that you can either be an intelligent white-collar worker, or a dumb blue collar brute, is an extremely false dichotomy. You could easily be an electrician during the day, and a devourer of the great books by night.

So too, it simply isn’t the case that your day-to-day work in the trades won’t engage your mind:

Myth #2: Blue-collar work isn’t creative or intellectually stimulating.

Another barrier to the trades is that there is a false notion that the work is mindless and tedious. Young people today want to be intellectually stimulated by what they do; they want to be creative and innovative, like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. The desire to create is a worthy one and is actually a defining marker of maturity. The issue is that we limit ourselves in how we think we can attain those qualities in our workplace. Surely it can only happen in a modern, minimalist office with a Mac and iPhone at hand, a big whiteboard on the wall, and fancy coffee at the ready, right? How on earth could creativity happen in a blue uniform with an auger in hand, getting to intimately know the inside a toilet?

The reality is that any job in the world includes mindless and tedious tasks. That’s just how it goes. In fact, a lot of office jobs are more tedious than you’d expect. A recent study showed that a staggering 90% of office workers waste time during the day on non-work-related activities — largely, surfing the web. Makes sense, though, doesn’t it? Nobody can be fully productive over the course of an 8-hour workday. Perhaps what’s more surprising is that over 60% are wasting at least an hour at work, and 30% are wasting 2+ hours. Why is this? The vast majority state that they’re either unchallenged, unsatisfied with their work, or are plain bored. Does that sound like an invigorating, stimulating workplace?

vintage painting plumber fixing sink boy looking on

It could pretty easily be argued that the trades offer more intellectual stimulation than the majority of office or even entrepreneurial jobs out there. Think about the residential plumber or electrician. He’s out and about all day, seeing new places, meeting new people, and grappling with new problems. There could be any number of issues as to why a toilet isn’t unclogging or why a particular outlet isn’t working. The tradesman will start off testing the standard issues and fixes, and if that doesn’t work he’ll utilize increasingly complex troubleshooting procedures to determine the root cause of a problem. He’s executing problem solving skills and quick thinking in a way that many of us in white collar jobs never have to. The skilled trades simply offer a different type of creative outlet than a job with a startup in a trendy office. That’s what Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, found to be the case. After going to college and taking a mind-numbing white collar job, he discovered that being a motorcycle mechanic actually provided him far more stimulation and satisfaction than he had ever gotten working behind a desk:

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous ‘self-esteem’ that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”

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