August 19, 2008, - 4:03 pm

Status v. Money: The Tough Job of Selling Blue Collar Jobs to Unemployed White Collar America

By Debbie Schlussel
As I noted recently, the value of a college degree is ever diminishing. Now, the welding industry is trying to plug a shortage in welders and iron workers to address a backlog in orders.
And welding now pays more than many jobs typically filled by a college grad.
But there’s a rub: How do you sell a higher-paying blue collar job to an America that now looks down on blue collar jobs and would rather take on large college loans and debts to get a degree and earn less?
It’s a problem that is associated with a country that produces less and less and consumes more and more. As I’ve noted before, America can’t survive as strictly a consumer nation. We must produce. If welder jobs aren’t filled, they’ll get filled by someone else who comes here or go somewhere else and take dollars away.


Snobbery–undue snobbery by empty-headed wannabe frat boys and sorority sisters–is killing America.
And I don’t think even the host of “Dirty Jobs”–Mike Rowe, who’s been recruited to sell blue collar jobs–can do the job.

The Wall Street Journal
has the interesting details:

Even as the economy slumps and unemployment rises, strong demand for power plants, oil refineries and export goods has many manufacturers and construction contractors scrambling to find enough skilled workers to plug current and future holes.
With the shortage of welders, pipe fitters and other high-demand workers likely to get worse as more of them reach retirement age, unions, construction contractors and other businesses are trying to figure out how to attract more young people to those fields.
Their challenge: overcoming the perception that blue-collar trades offer less status, money and chance for advancement than white-collar jobs, and that college is the best investment for everyone. . . .
Companies and unions don’t dispute that college can be a wise investment, but they also say some unionized craft workers can earn more than the average college graduate, without the burden of student debt.
“You earn while you learn,” says Brian Couch, a young electrician, in a video posted on the Web sites YouTube and MySpace. “It’s not like going to college where you go to school for five to eight years and have to work a part-time job.”
That video and several others like it were developed by public-relations firm Pac/West Communications for Local 48 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Association in Portland, Ore.
The two groups have teamed up for the online campaign to encourage high-school graduates to consider an apprenticeship as an alternative to college. . . .
Dusty Henry, a 25-year-old electrician in Portland, Ore., who belongs to IBEW Local 48, says he earns $34 an hour working on renewable-energy projects while some of his friends who went to college are having a hard time finding jobs.
“I chose the path that I wanted to take…and learned as much as I could for that one thing,” Mr. Henry said. “You go to college to kind of figure out what you want to do, but if you don’t figure it out, you go out with debt and you still don’t know.” . . .
Skilled-labor shortages are likely to intensify in coming years as more workers retire and the economy picks up again. By 2012, FMI predicts, nationwide demand for electricians, masons and pipe fitters, if their numbers remain constant, will exceed supply by at least 5%. Regional and seasonal shortages are expected to be much steeper.
Between 1995 and 2005, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds in college rose to 39% to 35%. Manufacturers, contractors and unions don’t dispute that college can be a wise investment, but they also say that unionized craft workers can earn more than the average college graduate. . . .
Michael Arndt, training director for the 300,000-member United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the U.S. and Canada, says a journeyman in his union — someone who has graduated from an apprenticeship — could earn about $30 an hour, or $1,050 for a 35-hour workweek. By comparison, median weekly earnings for workers 25 and older with only a bachelor’s degree amounted to $999 in the second quarter of 2008, according to the Labor Department.
“To the extent that people are picking college, they’re turning down construction,” says Kenneth D. Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, an Arlington, Va., trade group.
To encourage young people to think about a future in the building trades, Mr. Simonson’s group has put together kits for elementary-school students that show, among other things, how to build a bridge out of popsicle sticks.

America is going to have to change the way it pushes college to those who aren’t among the great minds. They’d be better off choosing a less intellectual path, like learning one of the skilled trades.
That’s not to say that skilled workers are dummies or that skilled work is for dummies. But the fact is that while most of America is now pushed toward college, that’s a mistake. We need a division of labor. Not everyone is going to be a writer or mathematician, and a country that pushes everyone toward that path or toward attaining an often worthless degree is an America that will sink.
Everyone wants status, but not everyone can get it. And when everyone goes the same route to attain it, that route loses its value.
I’m not saying the state/government should decide who does what. That’s statism and they do that in Europe and did it in the then-Soviet Union and other communist states. I’m saying we shouldn’t push and encourage everyone to go to college.
Clearly, the marketplace has decided that college is devalued when everyone does it. It’s now just a commodity that anyone can buy.
Time to encourage people to the skilled trades so we remain a producer nation.

15 Responses

Most of these college graduates are so mediocre that they shouldn’t really be looking down at anyone.
I think another thing that makes college attractive to them is that for four years, or, if working part-time, then part-time for a number of years, they can indulge their narcissism, take meaningless courses for the most part, party, indulge many of their whims, which is harder to do if you’re training to be a plumber and you either know the stuff or you don’t. Hard to miss plumbrs apprentice training because you were high last night. A lot of them just don’t want to work. They are lazy, and those college students in victim groups have, for the most part, succombed to victimology.

c f on August 19, 2008 at 4:42 pm

You have a great point here, Debbie; one that I’ve voiced before to many a young college graduate.
I have two nephews in their 20’s with college degrees. Both of them are strong enough and young enough to work blue collar jobs that would pay them DOUBLE what they’re making now.
Plus, (and here’s the real aggrevating part) as young college graduates, they are on a fast-track toward project management once they get fully credentialed. There’s a very good future for many college graduates who fill blue-collar jobs.
Here are America’s highest paying blue-collar jobs in pictures. I’ve been involved in the design end on some of them. I’d also add that the wages are about 50% below Michigan averages for fully certified tradesmen. They probably represent something close to starting wages particularly in the Detroit area.

There is NO Santa Claus on August 19, 2008 at 4:55 pm

As a nation we have failed to realize just how important a skilled worker is and have failed to spread the word. My son is a welder, and a damn good one at that. He has been laid off more than once, but has never been out of work more than one week at a time. A few times I have wished I had a welding cert instead of a degree in engineering.
When you car’s transmission needs repair, see if a person with an MBA or an art appreciation degree can fix it.

Pelayo on August 19, 2008 at 4:55 pm

The supply vs. demand law of economics will deal with this shortage just fine. $25-75/hour and up will get the job done–adjusting for each skill level required in various trades. College degreed people need to find their niche like everyone else does.
As for illegals’ effect on this issue, few of these are skilled trades (perhaps besides computer tech workers) can be filled by low such skill workers. Skilled or no–illegals should still be deported–100% of the time.
If only we had a candidate who understood that no amnesty for illegals is a DEMAND of the American people by a huge majority. How the pols like McCain sell us out by their amnesty plans shows what little regard they have for the will of the people on this. McCain will tell you–“I know more than any of you on this issue.” Yeah right McCain.

BB on August 19, 2008 at 6:17 pm

“I think another thing that makes college attractive to them is that for four years, or, if working part-time, then part-time for a number of years, they can indulge their narcissism, take meaningless courses for the most part, party, indulge many of their whims, which is harder to do if you’re training to be a plumber and you either know the stuff or you don’t.”
Wow, thats a bit of a broad brush there. Personal experience on your part? As for me I worked full time all through school.
I will agree with you on the dumbed down students having taught at a Community College. I quit after the school dropped some core courses.
Any insight to why the author feels people with college degrees are snobs?

Azygos on August 19, 2008 at 7:49 pm

You seem unaware that the skilled construction trades are heavily filled with Hispanic immigrants. The carpenters and masons are largely Spanish speaking. Other skilled trades are being quickly filled by immigrants. All this while college grads move back home with their parents because they can’t get paid similar wages or get jobs at all because they have no real career plans, ambition or even work ethic.
Economics will take care of the problem, but maybe not in the way you think.

There is NO Santa Claus on August 19, 2008 at 7:57 pm

Most of those better trade jobs are pretty hard to come by. It is definitely about “who you know”.

John Harper on August 19, 2008 at 10:12 pm

I generally agree that we need more BLUE collar jobs and US MEN should understand what WORK really is. After all it wasn’t suppose to be EASY when you do it honestly but are actually producing something. Service jobs pay much less.
The only problem I THINK IS though is that it is UNIONIZED and that is not good for free market ecomomics and leting supply and demand determine the price. MOst Unions create a situation where a person can’t even use all his skills because the Union says so which doesn’t help the person long term.

adam6275 on August 19, 2008 at 10:43 pm

Debbie, just so you know, if we have kids I will tell them to go to college no matter how lucrative blue collar work looks. We could always help them out with some of your blogging money.

Anonymous1 on August 19, 2008 at 11:56 pm

I enjoyed the comment about “When you car’s transmission needs repair, see if a person with an MBA or an art appreciation degree can fix it.”
Unfortunatly, here in the Los Angeles area it will most likely be an illegal who does the R&R and or rebuild of that transmission.
Anyone who lives in Southern Kalifornia and walks into an auto repair facility will see an overwhelming majority of Hispanic auto techs. Most of the guys are ILLEGAL too. Los Angeles is swimming in illegal mechanics.
The last auto repair shop I worked in consisted of four techs with no drivers licenses OR green cards. I had to do ALL of the road testing for all of them since they were afraid of being stopped and getting tickets. They WERE NOT afraid of their immigration status, just not having drivers licenses.
Several other shops I worked for were the same damn way. I blame the employers again. They knew the situation and condoned it. These shop owners who knowingly employ illegals are destroying the pay-scale for all legal workers in the auto repair industry here in So Cal. They know it and don’t care. Maybe I got off-topic but there it is.

Rich B on August 20, 2008 at 1:22 am

I have FAITH that if these “blue collar jobs” are made AVAILABLE to US CITIZENS, as opposed to being contracted/subcontracted out to ILLEGALS, then (a) American Citizens will take those jobs (b) American Citizens will EXCEL at those jobs and (c) it will address/disprove the STEREOTYPE that Americans are “lazy” and/or “won’t do certain jobs”.
The best, and hardest working, employees in the World are US Citizens.
Having seen “firsthand”, here in the Washington DC area, the number of ILLEGAL construction workers/contracts (over a period of years) making $ 1,000.00 or more per week (cash) it (literally) sickens me.
There needs to be an EMPHASIS on jobs going, first and foremost, to AMERICAN CITIZENS.
Should that happen then any “concerns” about there not being enough “workers” will be DISPROVEN and America will be better for it.
WAKE UP America. Nuff said.
NOSTRADAMUSLIVES by Jeffrey Schrembs

Nostradamus on August 20, 2008 at 1:54 am

Just one comment. Many of these high-paying blue collar jobs are in cyclical industries. You make a lot of money when things are hot – but when there’s a downturn then what?

RogerNel on August 20, 2008 at 8:26 am

The mechanics in my area charge $100 an hour. The occasions when I’ve called a plumber, $100/hr. The electrican $75 an hour. A good finish carpenter, bidding by the job, can make well over $100 an hour if he works quickly.
But then, with the dollar borrowed into worthless paper, a hundred bucks buys what today what $8 bought in 1950.

Johnny Yuma on August 20, 2008 at 9:32 am

Does anyone else see the guy in the pic as looking like catcher Johnny Bench in the 70’s?
John Harper–
My point is if some trades end up stocked with LEGAL immigrants–that is fine with me (I think people becoming citizens should have to learn English as a requirement).
Besides this–we should go in to such work places and job sites where you see what you describe and weed out the illegals for temporary incarceration and then deportation. How this illegal presence is tolerated in this country is an outrage!
It’s tough to understand how there is not some ID check on these workers businesses hire. I mean we businesses have to fill out the forms and send in the info–so how do these people without valid SSN’s and so forth stay here? Any government computer can check any driver’s license or SSN ID # instantly–so how do those without valid ID’s aget to stay?
If we can address the issue of making illegality truly “illegal” –then all the other problems of labor shortages will sort themselves out by economics.

BB on August 20, 2008 at 9:50 am

Don’t worry 20 million more illegal aliens will be imported to take those jobs and drive wages even lower. I heard someone complaining just the other day that owner operator welders in the CA. oilfields are making roughly the same wages they were 20 years ago thanks to that segment of the invasion force who decided to take up welding. There has never been a shortage of workers just a shortage of employers willing to pay a living wage…

no_where_man on August 20, 2008 at 5:42 pm

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