Blue Collar, White Collar: More Career Emphasis Should be Put on the Trades

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It was a typical afternoon in my world. I was 3 feet underground in a hole covered in mud fixing a broken waterline. I remember thinking, “Well, at least it’s not raining.”

The homeowner had just walked up to check my progress. Following close behind him was his oldest son, all of about 14-years old. The son took one look at me and the condition I was in and said, “That sucks, Dad. What is he doing?”

The father quickly replied, “That, son, is why you stay in school.”

What was that supposed to mean? Did they think I was some high-school dropout? Or did he simply mean that I obviously didn’t go to college, and that’s why I ended up with this job?

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Should I let the kid know that I was very happy with my career choice? Or was it my place to let the boy know that I make more money than his father? Or maybe he should talk to the young adults holding their four-year degrees who apply at my shop to work as a laborer.

Unfortunately, this is an attitude I am all too familiar with. People assume that because I am a blue-collar worker, I’m supposed to be miserable at work and poor for the rest of my life.

The truth is I’m very happy with my job. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been times in my life when I have fallen on hard times, because I have, but when those times happened, they weren’t because of my job choice. The fact is, my job choice helped me climb back up during down times.

I have been told multiple times by work-force professionals — white-collar workers who struggle to make ends meet — that they wish they had been told about the trades when they were younger. It’s not that they don’t make good money, but because their cost of living and standard of living that accompanies their jobs requires yet more income. Some of these white-collar workers worry about becoming obsolete, or, worse yet, they worry that after 10 years in their field, they’ll be replaced by someone half their age because of the change in technology.

One of the best things about my trade is that it allows me to move to any town in America and get a good-paying job the next day.

How many people can say that about their occupation?

If what I’ve just said is true – which it is – why haven’t we heard more about it? Why is every high school in America pushing college so hard as the only option for earning a living one day?  Why is it that so few people are talking about the trades?

To truly understand this you can go back in our California history.

In 1848 gold was discovered in California. Next came the Gold Rush, and of course, soon California had its first millionaire. Most would assume that this person must have struck it rich, that he found the motherlode.

In fact, the first millionaire was Samuel Brannan, and he didn’t get his money from gold directly. Instead, Brannan was a local businessman who also owned a small newspaper. He knew that if he sent out fliers telling of this great gold rush and how people could strike it rich, that people would come by the thousands, which is exactly what happened. He also knew that these fortune-seekers would need instructions and tools to look for gold.

Shortly after he sent out his fliers, Brannan began selling maps to the area so fortune-hunters would know where to look. He sold shovels, wheelbarrows and anything else one might need to strike it rich. Brannan figured out something that has remained true for more than 100 years: There is more money in training and equipping someone for a job than there is in the actual job itself.

Many college courses will promise how much money a student will eventually earn with a degree if the student will just enroll at that particular college or university. Is it the professions who are singing the praises of a particular job title, or is it the school selling the education?

I think that most people are under the impression that going to college is a guarantee that students will one day graduate and earn six-figure incomes. That’s simply not true. College is a tool, that if used properly, can be of great help. But a college degree is no guarantee for a degree that will promise a living-wage income. I know people with nursing degrees who earn $36,000 a year, and I know welders who earn close to $200,000 a year.

Now switch back to the blue-collar trades. There simply is not a lot of money to be made in training someone to work in one of the trades. For the most part, this training lands at the feet of the employer. They can spend tens of thousands of dollars training a worker, and they can leave at any time. The only way the company keeps them is by treating them better than the next potential employer. There is not going to be some hot-shot kid fresh out of school who will take their place if they leave. There is also a feeling of accomplishment of getting something done with your hands, in building something.

I think that for the most part, blue-collar workers are generally happy at their jobs.

If you don’t believe me, Ask Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs”. He’s built a career proving it.

So the next time you see someone in a ditch, or holding a sign on a construction site, don’t feel sorry for them.

They just might be driving a more expensive car than you.

Dan Adams
Dan Adams has been a licensed plumbing contractor for nearly 30 years. He owns and operates Edgewood Plumbing  in Redding with his wife, Holly. In 2000 he and Holly moved to Redding from the Bay Area in search of a better place to raise their sons.
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20 Responses

  1. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    My son is a CDL truck driver. He can live anywhere and get a job immediately because, very important, he can pass a drug test. He worked in banking for several years, white collar, but with all the bank mergers he was constantly laid off. He applied for a truck driving job, he didn’t even know how to drive a stick shift car, with Schneider Trucking. They paid for his training with the only requirement being he would work for them a year and a half. A dozen years later he is now working for CR England in a local home daily route in Phoenix. He gets health insurance and retirement with the job.
    There is a shortage of truck drivers in the country, despite all the naysayers about driverless trucks another pipe dream. The hours are not 9-5 and until recently the pay, while good, was not keeping truck drivers employed, they were quitting. Now, as of two days ago, CR England raised the pay of all drivers because they needed 150 more drivers just here in Phoenix. Many companies offer free training in exchange for working a certain amount of time for the company.
    The community college in Cheyenne, LCCC, has a course on diesel mechanics and the graduates have jobs waiting for them. Welders are another course that the graduates have jobs waiting for them. The vocational schools for the most part are rip offs, the same courses they offer for several thousands of dollars are available at most community colleges for a fraction of the cost.

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      Bruce, I gotta be the contrarian with this one. I don’t think your prediction that driverless trucks are a pipe dream is well-founded. Self-driving trucks are already delivering refrigerators between a Frigidaire factory in El Paso, TX and a distribution center near Palm Springs. (For now, a human “chauffeur” sits in the cab and does nothing.) Most of the route is on Interstate 10. I buy the prediction that driverless trucks are just around the corner, at least for long-haul routes.

      Those of us who regularly travel up and down Interstate 5 will welcome the day when we’re no longer in danger of being run onto the shoulder by a truck driver changing lanes, or being trapped in the fast lane behind a truck going 56 trying to pass a truck going 55 mph. All of those driverless trucks, staying in the right lane, cruising at the same speed….bring it.

      The day will come when even airline pilots are obsolete. It’ll come down to an actuarial evaluation of economics, reliability, safety, and liability—and once the cost-benefit ratio tips in favor of automation, that’ll be all she wrote.

      The loss of jobs will be tough, but loss of jobs to automation and robotics has been a problem for decades. It’s not going to stop the long-term trend toward robotics and automation. Farriers complained about the rise of automobiles and trucks.

      • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

        Steve, “Driverless” means driver less, not chauffeured. As has been documented down her in Phoenix, those chauffeurs have been asleep at the wheel. Mesa banned Uber driverless and if I’m not mistaken SF did too. You may feel comfortable with 80,000 pound trucks driving without a driver on I5 but I don’t on I10 down here. It is much safer to deliver loads on railroads to destinations where they are delivered by trucks with drivers.
        The pay raises CR England handed out are to hire more competent drivers and keep them. And if driverless trucks were really the future, not a pipe dream, then the big trucking companies would be looking and trying them out, not paying to train actual drivers.
        The real future in people travel is the Hooperlink of which Denver has been awarded a multimillion deal to run a “BART” similar, though better, transit that will run from DIA to Aspen and Pueblo to Colorado. I rode BART in the Bay Area and watched the commuters in auto gridlock on the freeways.
        That is the real future with all the tech available now to work from home or while cpmmuting in a driverless train to work. Driven trucks are still going to be delivering goods. Look at Amazon who is now after investors to buy truck fleets, with drivers, to deliver Amazon products. Drones have been predicted but so far are a total failure.
        And what Dan has brought up is how the Blue Collar workforce is looked down on by the White Collar workforce. The comment he shared at the top of the article is a common occurrence.

  2. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    I’ve long said that not every high school graduate should go to college. In fact, not all teens should be in regular high school. Alternative schools often better meet their needs. The trades are looking for would-be plumbers, electricians, welders, mechanics, firefighters, etc. Back in the dark ages when I was in school, our high school offered shop class, and the boys flocked to it. Working on engines now requires computer knowledge, but back then, most of the high school boys were decent backyard mechanics and could tinker with internal combustion engines with a socket set and screwdriver. I hope the pendulum swings back so that school counselors guide teens toward something other than passing a SAT.

  3. Avatar Linda Cooper says:

    Well, my mother liked to say, “you should marry a mechanic.”

  4. Avatar sue says:

    Great writing. Thanks

  5. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    It was one of the most difficult decisions of my young life. My first real summer job, at 14 (illegally), was working as a carpenter’s laborer for an uncle. I did construction in Colorado every summer thereafter until I started college. Two years into college, feeling aimless, I decided to take a year off and ski. I spent the year in Steamboat Springs, working for the ski area’s base maintenance department, doing a little bit of everything construction-related. I was only 19, but smart and still imbued with a ridiculously strong Protestant work ethic long after my religious beliefs had dissipated. I was soon promoted to crew supervisor—all of the ski bums on my crew were older than me.

    I loved it. At the end of the year I started confronting the decision node. Do I go back to college? Or do I stay? I could go into construction here and kill it here among these lazy rubes, and be happy in this mountain paradise……I know it.

    I went back to college, and not because I’d had an epiphany and suddenly “knew what I wanted to be.” I was still clueless about that. I went back for the education. I decided I didn’t want to wake up one day, 40 years old, and realize that I’d had a chance to be the vanishingly rare person in my extended family to get a college education, and I blew it. So I went back to college, and ended up staying for another 8 years.

    I have many days—as I plod through my professional life dealing with repetitive, bullshit, pointless soul-sucking tasks—when I wish I made an honest living with my hands as well as my head, and could take pride in the substantive, observable results of my labor at the end of the day. And with age comes some measure of wisdom: I now appreciate that most of my local buddies here in Shasta County who didn’t go to college are extremely well-educated—it’s just that they just chose fields of study that aren’t offered in top-drawer research universities.

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed Dan’s essay…but money or driving a nicer rig than someone else has never been my motivator. I bought a new Toyota Tundra in 2003 with cash, and I’ve been driving it ever since. It’s served as a wildlife ecologist’s field rig and a hobby-farm truck over those years, and has achieved true “beater” status. (My wife has been through about 5 new vehicles over those years.) That Tundra needs new tires, and it’s at the point where a full set of new tires is approaching the total value of the rig, so I’m hesitating. But I might just pull the trigger and wear out one last set of tires on the old gal.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is, there’s nothing wrong with making less than $100k a year as a nurse if you love the work and don’t really care what other people make of your apparent level of “success.”

      • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

        We always buy new cars. Not being a mechanic, I figure I have much better luck with a new car than a used one. People say to me, “But once you drive it off the lot, it has lost $$$ in value.” My response is that, sure, if I were going to trade up every couple of years, that might be something to ponder. However, my Pilot is a 2005, and my niece bought my husband’s 1999 Ranger – with a mere 65,000 miles on the odometer – so I don’t understand the logic of not purchasing new. To replace the Ranger, we bought a 2016 Forester and will probably have it a very long time.

        • Avatar Johanna Anderson says:

          People don’t buy new cars because (wait for it)…. they can’t afford them. Simple logic.

          • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

            Of course your logic is correct. However, I was speaking to the logic that since new cars lose immediate value, purchasing one should be avoided. After ten+ years of ownership, it matters not that a vehicle lost value once it was driven off the dealership lot.

  6. Avatar Robert Wallenberg says:

    Love it! You hit the nail on the head!
    I remember in the 7th & 8th grade we went to shop (boys) & cooking (girls).
    Not sure this happens.
    Also we had trade schools.
    Would be a good idea to renew.
    For me, chose white collar – banking, insurance – never regretted.
    Willing to pay $50 to $100 an hour for repairs.

  7. Avatar Carolyn Dokter says:

    Your article is spot on!

  8. Avatar Tony Ten Broeck says:

    The biggest reason school push college prep is that the program is far cheaper than vocational training. There are fewer liability problems with college-prep.

    Everyone should learn how to work with their hands.

    When the American public decides to fund programs they will probably re-emerge. It is important that all students learn how to learn and how to teach themselves.

  9. AJ AJ says:

    Many a conversation has taken place over the lunch table in the teacher’s room about this very thing!! A college degree isn’t a guarantee about anything. We all agreed that if this trend continued, the trades would become more and more valuable because the scarcity of people in the coming generations needed to cover these jobs.
    I understand the socio/economic history of this mind set that says that in order to be a success at anything you had to have a college degree. This attitude started forming when so many veterans coming out of WWII were able, for the first time in the history of their families, were able to use the G.I.Bill. This is when we started getting rid of our trade education in our schools (wood shop/auto repair/cooking . . . etc. etc.) The trade apprentice track started being looked down upon (as per this article) and a college degree was taken as a guarantee of a superior life-style. Not so, my friend. . . . and getting less and less so each year.
    At one time my husband and I were playing music in one of the large hotel/restaurant/bar complexes in the mid-west. Just out of curiosity my husband started questioning the clerks working the front desk. Everyone of them, without exception, had a master’s degree in some field . . . but they were working the registration desk at the hotel because they couldn’t find a job in their field.
    It’s of great interest to me that the PBS program, This Old House, has started an apprentice program in the various trades that are used in remodeling old houses.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      AJ, your comment. “Not so, my friend. . . . and getting less and less so each year” could have this additon: And getting more an more expensive each year. College grads come out of four-, six-, and 8-year programs with huge debt. Not only can they not find jobs, they owe thousands on college loans.

  10. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    Actually, Blue Collar jobs have as much education as White Collar jobs just in different fields. A nurse, very much in demand, makes more than a financial advisor or environmental expert. And a nurse can go to work anywhere immediately while the college graduates find jobs as hotel clerks while looking for work.

  11. Avatar Janine Hall says:

    If I could start over again, hmm. Nope not a college degree. I did start a college and then decided on a trade instead. I finished a trade school and then moved north to Redding. I could have stayed in the optical trade and probably made a decent living. But my passion took me a different direction. Working with my hands for more than 40 years made me so much more than happy. Nothing is better than making something with my hands, and making the customer happy is a plus too.

  12. Avatar Richard Goates says:

    It used to be that the “College Degree” really meant something. And in some circles and professions, it still might. Today, with student debt at all-time highs and no Guarantee that the piece of paper will get you that $100k a year job the trades are a good bet for many. My AC guy years ago came up at 10:30 pm at night to Shingletown to fix our AC. I asked him, you are willing to come that late? He responded I am an Opportunist and Capitalist and will be retired in 5-7 years! ( he was about 48). So yes I am happy to help you that late!

    Try to get that out of an 18-25, year-old, today!

    I have a Realtor friend that has no college degree, he makes $100k a year. He can hardly spell either. But his drive and enthusiasm and hard work over the last 30 years in the business have served him well!

    Perhaps the Father that made the “That’s why you stay in school” Son comment can share with his son the next time they go through In and Out that the Manager there makes $100k year including bonus!

    But I doubt he will. He will probably make a comment to his son about the funny hat, stay in school Son, you don’t want to wear a funny hat like that! And Son, when you are 45 and finally get your student loan paid off, you will be doing Really good!

    College isn’t for everyone. The Trades are not for everyone. From what I read the numbers are declining in the trades. With that in mind, Future AC/Heat guys might be retiring sooner!

    • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

      The trades are declining in numbers for the same reason employment is declining in white collar jobs, automation. The demand is still there. My first real job, 55 years ago, was in concrete work. Automation has made it safer and quicker. Where I used to wheelbarrow concrete from the truck to the forms on shaky ramps they have large cranes that swing into position to pour now. In the hygiene area there are now portable outhouses where I found a tree or basement. {What’s under your basement floor}?