The Future of Blue-Collar Jobs

Scott Mitts on the backhoe

One of the critical components in a fire suppression system is the underground water supply. In order to do any work underground, a backhoe is used to dig and transport the dirt. During my time as an apprentice pipefitter, I’ve worked on a handful of underground projects and on a recent job I noticed that operating the backhoe for long periods of time under the scorching hot sun looked really physically taxing so I asked my boss if he wanted me to give the backhoe a shot. I’ve never operated any sort of heavy machinery before so he wisely responded with “No, this thing is powerful.”

In an effort to be a versatile worker for my company, I decided to look into a backhoe training certification course and in the process I noticed a few things that got me thinking about the future of blue-collar jobs.

What’s a blue-collar job?

The terms “blue collar” and “white collar” were coined in the 1920’s because laborers normally wore blue denim shirts and people working in offices usually wore white dress shirts. Although work clothing trends have changed drastically, these terms are still frequently used today.

In general, blue-collar work is considered to be any job that requires manual labor and working with your hands. White-collar work refers to jobs performed in an office, usually in front of a computer. Blue-collar workers normally get paid by the hour and white-collar employees are usually compensated with a salary regardless of the hours worked, although most white-collar employers require an eight hour workday.

Examples of blue-collar jobs:

  • Construction workers like pipefitters and electricians
  • Police Officer
  • Aircraft mechanic
  • Power plant operator

Examples of white-collar jobs:

  • Accountant
  • Lawyer
  • Human resources manager
  • Digital marketer
  • Sales representative

There are however some exceptions to this rule like for example surgeons, dentists or engineers who often work with their hands but are considered white-collar workers because of their specialized training, education and high wages.

Backhoe Training Certification

While browsing the website of a company that offers training certifications for heavy machinery, the first thing I noticed while completing the request for more information form, was the drop down menu that asked for current level of education. There was no option for college graduate. The options were:

  • High School Graduate
  • GED
  • Have not graduated HS or GED
  • Some College

But the option to select college graduate wasn’t even an option.

Is it so unrealistic for someone with a college education to want or need to learn how to operate heavy machinery that this company decided to omit the option entirely?

I guess I’m a part of the minority because I’m a college graduate who wants to learn how to operate heavy machinery.

No option for college graduate?

On the website of the largest heavy machinery equipment rental company in the world, United Rentals, they didn’t even have any training certification courses available period.

No heavy machinery certification courses available at this time?

I haven’t performed any exhaustive research into the matter and there are a few companies paying for Google Ads for the keyword term “backhoe training certification,” so I’m sure there are training resources available. However, United Rentals isn’t currently paying for ads for this search term. It might be because they’re one of the first organic search results for this keyword term so they didn’t feel the need for the additional search results visibility or it might be because they simply aren’t offering the courses at the moment.

Either way, this lack of available backhoe training options and advertisers clearly indicates a lack of demand for this particular blue-collar skillset.

Good Blue-collar workers

My boss is always complaining about employee retention. His complaint isn’t an unusual one for an employer because everyone knows that good people are hard to find. But he’s confused why people keep quitting our company. I’m not familiar enough with our industry to know what the employment standards are for pipefitters but I feel like we get compensated fairly under very acceptable working conditions.

But my perspective is probably severely biased because I personally love my job. I feel like I literally get paid to work out and play with grownup Legos and tools and even to play in the dirt, which most mammals love to do in nature.

But the complaint is a fair one because pipefitting is a valuable trade/skill that pays well and isn’t incredibly dangerous compared to, for example, a job like being a police officer where you could lose your life at any given moment.

Pipefitting is also an essential element in society because all Fire Departments rely on our work to save lives. We provide the Fire Department with the ability to fight fires using water because we build and maintain the transmission and distribution conduit for water. Simply put without pipefitters, Fireman cannot save lives and millions of people would die annually if it wasn’t for the automated fire suppression systems we install in buildings.

Not to mention it’s the only trade that a General Contractor is required to sub-contract out to a specialty company like ours. A General Contractor can hire his own electricians, plumbers, framers or any Joe Shmoe off the street to perform the work but a GC can not legally install the fire suppression system (overhead fire sprinklers) themselves, so in short, it’s a great trade to learn.

So then what’s the problem? Why is it so hard to keep good people in this line of work?

I’m no workforce trend prediction specialist, and there are tons of articles written about the future of blue-collar jobs, but here are my thoughts in no particular order.

  • “New-collar” workers. According to the Wall Street Journal, a combination of factors have led to a new trend – workers switching collars. New-collar workers are workers who previously held blue-collar jobs and transitioned to jobs in technology. This trend was caused by simple economics.
    • More tech jobs exist as technology penetrates all facets of every business in every industry.
    • Less available workers: During the pandemic a large percentage of the working population decided to quit or switch their jobs, resulting in a shortage of workers for tech companies
    • This gap created an opportunity for front-line workers to make a career change and benefit from the flexibility, upward mobility, and higher pay the technology sector offers.
  • The recent uptick in side hustles available in the gig economy. Side hustles like being an Uber driver are rapidly increasing in popularity due to the incredibly simple process to get started and highly competitive compensation.
  • Millennials and Gen Z, due to the rise in popularity of video games and time spent online, grew up spending a lot less time doing physical activities like playing sports or simply playing outside in general. As a kid I grew up playing army, fishing, building forts in the forest, and riding bikes all over town from sunrise to sunset because the internet didn’t yet exist. Children these days are much more likely to be seen using an iPad than building a tree fort.
  • Parental guidance. I could be wrong because I don’t have children, but my guess is that very few parents these days encourage their children to grow up to be construction workers. Even my bosses son, which also happens to work at our company as a foreman, attended college which means they were open minded about his career choices and didn’t push him towards the construction trades.
  • Blue-collar jobs are much more dangerous than office jobs. Becoming physically disabled is highly unlikely when you work in front of a computer whereas the probably of getting injured on a construction job site is much higher. A parents job is to keep their children alive and healthy, so it’s understandable to discourage their children from participating in dangerous activities, which construction definitely is without the proper training.
  • Lower initial wages. Generally speaking, the majority of blue-collar workers earn less than the majority of college graduates. If making a lot of money is a priority, you’re probably not thinking about a career in the trades. Although this isn’t always the case. For example, if you start an electrical apprenticeship at the age of 18, by the time you’re 23, you’re probably going to be earning a lot more than someone with a business degree from an average university entering the workforce as an entry level employee at 23. This of course excludes those who attend top ranked schools or work in sales or marketing. It’s not uncommon for Ivy League grads to start their careers with high salaries and sales and marketing positions can be quite lucrative.
  • Inherent sense of entitlement. It seems like a lot of kids these days are spoiled, lazy, and simply don’t like to work hard, to say it simply. Due to the rising costs of living and other factors, lots of parents had to spend most of their time and energy working so instead of giving their children the necessary investment of parenting time, it was more convenient to give them money, resulting in kids who feel more entitled to privileges or special treatment. Most kids these days don’t have to earn their allowance mowing lawns or running a newspaper route like in the days of my childhood.

Benefits of Blue-collar work

I’m not a parent so I can’t say for certain, but if I had a son, unless he happened to be gifted academically or displayed some sort of above average natural talent or passion for a specific subject, I would probably encourage him to look into the trades because there are a ton of benefits that seem to escape the minds of most parents. Here are a few in no particular order:

  • Job Security – The construction trades require local skilled resources and can’t be outsourced to low-cost workers in India, Philippines, or any other third world country because you must be physically here. Desk jobs on the other hand is another story. With a cheap computer, internet connection, and English language coach, the majority of desk jobs can be moved offshore to be performed by someone earning often five times less than an American. Even medical surgeries can be performed using cameras and robotics from a lower cost doctor in India or Asia. Even warehouse workers are being replaced with robots who can locate, pick and pack products that need to be shipped to customers. In fact, we just completed a fire suppression project for a fully automated product distribution warehouse for which is the largest retailer in China. The nuances of the building trades make it virtually impossible to automate robotically or outsource internationally, so there’s great job security.
  • Health Benefits – Sitting in front of a computer in a closed-air office building where the air only circulates within the building as opposed to working in fresh air, isn’t the healthiest or most sanitary environment due to mold and other airborne contaminants that build up over time. Constant outdoor physical activity compared to typing in front of a computer all day, isn’t even a comparison when it comes to physical and probably also mental health. How good do you feel after a nice run outside? Exactly. According to a million expert studies, physical inactivity is one of the leading causes of heart disease and health problems in general.
  • Less Stress – There are exceptions, but working in the trades is generally much less stressful than managing a business or working in technology or finance mainly because of factors that are out of your control like volatile market fluctuations or tech-enabled startup disruptors. Stress is the trades is more easily manageable and preventable with simple planning and experience. Excessive stress is bad for your health.
  • Tangible and Frequent Job Satisfaction – In the trades, you often quickly see the results of your labor whereas in desk jobs, you rarely obtain a sense of satisfaction from your work. Sure you’ll get quarterly or annual reports and things like customer satisfaction ratings, and if all goes well, your numbers will have improved. But honestly, how much satisfaction do you get out of pissing less people off at the end of the year? Sales and marketing jobs are a little different because they’re more performance oriented and you often receive daily or weekly performance visibility. But honestly, selling more widgets than the previous quarter is only exciting for so long.
  • It sounds cliché but money isn’t everything – I was fortunate enough to make millions of dollars very early on in my career, and sure having a lot of money is amazing. But accumulating material items gets old much quicker than you would think. It’s hard to be a balanced and happy person when you’re constantly chasing the coin. I’m speaking from firsthand direct experience because I’ve been an entrepreneur and business owner for the past fifteen years. I appreciate money just as much as the next guy, but in my experience, once you’ve covered your basic essentials like food, shelter, and health insurance, there’s a special beauty to living a simple, balanced, and low stress life filled with regular hard work and minimal useless material overhead. But let’s be real, this does require some capital or a steady income source.
  • Working with your hands is really fun – Why do you think so many people love playing golf? I like to compare blue-collar work to being a professional golfer because it’s almost the same thing if you think about it. With both activities, you’re simply trying to master your own body/hands. You’re competing against yourself to become faster, smarter, safer and ultimately better, although one pays a lot better. Arts and crafting is huge because making stuff with your hands is literally fun and even proven to be healthy which is why doctors often recommend it as part of a rehabilitation or recovery program.
  • Financial Compensation – Unless you went to an Ivy League school, you probably earn less than an experienced construction worker. I have a lot of friends who’ve worked at the Big Four. Not only is it highly competitive to get hired, working for Deloitte, E&Y, PwC, or KPMG, doesn’t pay much and you don’t get paid overtime. A journeyman electrician or pipefitter earns more than one of these so-called “consultants.” At least until you earn the title of partner, which normally takes a very long time.
  • Women – According to really important Harvard research studies published in important academic journals – it’s a scientifically proven fact that more women are attracted to blue-collar construction workers and police officers than white-collar accountants or HR directors. haha, just kidding…sort of 😉

My Prediction For The Future of Blue-collar jobs

I’m not old enough to have lived through many economic life cycles but even if I was, technology is rewriting conventional wisdom at a pace that’s unparalleled to anything humans have ever experienced, so the future of workforces is hard to predict with a high level of certainty.

But my simple prediction is that the basic law of supply and demand will ensue.

As the availability of qualified blue-collar workers declines, the demand will increase resulting in higher compensation and improved employment benefits making blue-collar jobs more attractive. Especially in the skilled trades where experience is often invaluable.

Anyone can pick up a phone and speak English for a living, but not anyone can know the safest and most profitable way to accomplish highly difficult, complex, expensive, dangerous construction projects, without a significant amount of experience.

We’ve all heard the term “You don’t know, what you don’t know.” And in a desk job role, mistakes and errors can most often be corrected with a few simple keystrokes.

In the construction world, one poor decision due to a lack of experience, is more often than not, extremely expensive and difficult to fix. For example, in my job as a pipefitter, incorrectly tightening one single bolt underground could end up costing a fortune to troubleshoot and fix.

Let’s say one loose bolt, and the connected pipe, is affected by any number of factors including, but not limited to, earthquakes, tree roots, rain, natural corrosion, oxidation, other construction work being performed in the same area, etc. Any of these factors could shift the pipe one fraction of an inch causing an underground water leak. Water damage happens very quickly and can cause millions of dollars of damage within seconds. Have you ever seen a fire-hydrant get knocked over by a car? How long do you think it would take for water at that pressure, to ruin the stuff in your home? Obviously, not very long. You get the idea.

So are experienced blue-collar workers necessary and worth paying a high wage for? I would say, unequivocally, yes. Obviously.

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