“We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist.”
Those are the words of Mike Rowe, former host of "Dirty Jobs," a television series on the Discovery Channel that followed hard-working entrepreneurs and employees doing unglamorous blue-collar jobs. Episodes feature occupations such as septic tank cleaners, bridge painters, dirt sterilizers and roadkill collectors — not exactly the type of work that comes to mind when most people ponder their dream job.
However, these jobs make the comforts of modern society possible. Functioning cars, clean roads, air-conditioned homes and fresh food are all the result of blue-collar output. Unfortunately, these professions are often taken for granted, as any recruiter in a blue-collar field likely knows.
Fewer young people are pursuing blue-collar careers, largely because of the stigma that is attached to labor-intensive work. A survey by Deloitte found that less than 3 in 10 parents would encourage their children to pursue a career in manufacturing. Instead, Millennials are attending college at a higher rate than previous generations. The total number of bachelor’s degrees earned in the United States in 1970 was 839,730. In 2015, it was nearly 1.9 million.
These macroeconomic trends have resulted in a skilled labor shortage. 54 percent of the U.S. labor market is skilled trade jobs. However, according to a 2017 study by the ManPowerGroup, the most difficult positions for employers to fill are skilled trades, even ahead of IT jobs. This includes blue-collar positions such as electricians, carpenters and masons.
As more Baby Boomers working blue-collar fields retire, the skills gap is likely to widen — but recruiters in blue-collar fields don’t have to just sit there and wring their hands. Here are five ways employers can combat this trend by steering more young people towards blue-collar positions.
1. Offer Apprenticeship Programs
There is a misconception that blue-collar work is inferior to white-collar work. White-collar jobs require more education after all, and individuals with more education are usually viewed as more intelligent. However, having a desk job doesn’t make an individual smarter than a person who works with their hands. Working as a blue-collar farmer and having an interest in reading are not mutually exclusive.
There are different types of intelligence to consider. While intelligence is traditionally thought of in the academic sense — as a person who scores well on standardized tests of logic, math and verbal comprehension — there are other forms of intelligence as well. In 1983, psychologist Howard Gardener introduced the theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner argued IQ testing was limited. He believed people are able to have many different types of intelligence such as musical, interpersonal, spatial and bodily-kinesthetic.
A plumber’s job may not require the strongest writing and math abilities, but it does demand intelligence in the form of advanced problem-solving, project management and people skills.
In order to attract Millennials and Gen Z to blue-collar jobs, companies and HR professionals need to remove the stigma against manual labor. This starts with a having a more nuanced view of how we define intelligence. With the right mindset shift, we can come to an understanding that people work blue-collar jobs because they want to, not because they have no other career options.
In Germany, a country known for its incredible craftsmanship, working in the skilled trades is a revered career path. The country supports blue-collar work by offering apprenticeship programs so young people can get the skills and training they need.
Partnering with trade schools and offering sponsored apprenticeship programs are effective ways for employers to help remove the stereotypes surrounding the trades.
2. Recognize and Reward Blue-Collar Employees
Blue-collar workers deserve more recognition for the value they add. Tech startups, VCs and high-profile entrepreneurs receive a disproportionate amount of press coverage and accolades.
Companies can recognize their blue-collar workers by promoting them to decision-making positions. Too often, there is a disconnect between the strategic decisions made by management and the work done in the field. Businesses can bridge this gap by integrating blue-collar and white-collar employees. Young people are more likely to find blue-collar jobs attractive if they know the positions have the potential to evolve into larger roles with executive decision making responsibility.
3. Emphasize ROI
According to a report by The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, there are 30 million jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,0000 per year that do not require a bachelor’s degree. Many of these are blue-collar jobs. In fact, a significant amount of blue-collar jobs earn higher salaries than white-collar ones.
Here are starting salaries for several blue-collar positions:
- Welder - $40,000
- Carpenter - $53,000
- Electrician - $54,000
- Boilermaker - $62,000
- Elevator Installer/Repairer - $79,000
- Power Plant Operator - $80,000
You can earn even more in these fields after gaining additional experience and developing management skills. It’s not uncommon for tradesmen to command six-figure salaries while paying only a fraction of the cost on their education compared to white-collar counterparts. In addition, vocational school can be finished within one to two years, which allows for two to three more years of income earning.
Many people assume a college is a good investment because individuals with bachelor’s degrees earn more on average. However, this statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. About 40 percent of undergraduate students drop out before earning their degree. There are other factors to consider as well when considering the ROI of college — such as tuition expenses, the emotional burden of debt and the opportunity cost of foregoing additional years in the workforce.
Companies that have skin in the game need to get involved in local communities. Employers should attend career fairs at high schools and community colleges to educate students about the types of opportunities they offer, and the financial upside that comes with working in the skilled trades.
4. Bring Tech to the Work Environment
Millennials and Gen Z are the digital generations. They grew up with smartphones and social media. They want to be able to utilize innovative technology in their work. However, they also are aware of the potential downsides of technology, with the threat of robots and artificial intelligence displacing thousands of jobs. In a study by the ManpowerGroup, 87 percent of Millennials said job security is a top priority when looking for a job.
Businesses need to find ways to incorporate technology that empowers their blue-collar workers rather than replaces them. This means not only providing them with a traditional toolbox, but also mobile and cloud-based tools, and educating them on the benefits of tools like these.
It’s why my startup company built a punch list and project scheduling app for construction teams. Construction is a trillion dollar industry, yet much of the onsite work is still coordinated with pen and paper. Our goal is to bring modern software technology to the field without automating away blue-collar jobs.
5. Compete for Talent
Companies hiring entry-level blue-collar workers must compete for talent. This means attracting job applicants by promoting their available positions online. It also means appealing to what Millennials and Gen Z-ers want: competitive compensation packages, flexibility, training and advancement opportunities. Millennials and Gen Z are known for job hopping. However, if they believe there are new opportunities to grow their skills and they feel appreciated for their work, then they will be less likely to go elsewhere.
Removing the negative stereotypes associated with manual work isn’t going to happen overnight. It will require a collective effort not just from employers, but also parents, teachers, career counselors, journalists and politicians.
My hope is that we can begin to appreciate our mechanics and plumbers as much as we do our doctors and lawyers. In doing so, more young people will realize blue-collar jobs offer rewarding careers that pay well and make meaningful contributions to society.
The skilled-labor shortage is a problem for the economy, but it also represents a tremendous opportunity for companies and individuals willing to put in the work. Sometimes it pays to zig when everyone else zags.
Yves Frinault is the co-founder and CEO of Fieldwire, a field management platform powering 200,000+ construction projects around the world. Yves holds a MS in Civil Engineering from Stanford University and a MS from Ecole Polytechnique.