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Reviving Blue Collar Work: How to Start a Career in the Trades

vintage blue collar worker in factory machining

Sometimes I wonder what life would be like without the Internet. Firstly, I’d be out of a job. And after writing this series on reviving the trades, I romantically think about how fun it might be to become an electrician. The problem, when I think of this hypothetical scenario, is that I know nothing about electricity. I know how to read a power meter (perhaps there’s an AoM article about that in the future!), how to change a simple lighting fixture, and how to flip my breaker switches. I don’t know anything about currents, wiring, where my electricity actually comes from, etc. I’m obviously not qualified enough to just apply with the local electrician in town and expect to be hired. So if I actually wanted to pursue the dream of becoming an electrician, what steps would I need to take to become a tradesman?

Maybe you’ve had more serious thoughts about learning a trade, but you don’t know where to begin either. You may be a high schooler trying to figure out what to do with your life. Or you could be a nice middle-aged fella who’s been in a cubicle his whole life and wants to do something different. No matter the circumstance, let this article serve as your guide to starting a new career in the trades.

To get some help understanding the world of tradesmen and unions, I spoke with some experts in the field, including folks from Emily Griffith Technical College and Pickens Technical College here in Denver; I also spoke with the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — the electrician’s union) and North America’s Building Trades Unions, which is a combo governing body and lobbying organization for 14 different building/construction-related trades.

First, Start at Home

If you’re thinking about the trades, take up a hobby (or a chore). Many blue collar jobs are actually things you can at least start out doing as hobbies/chores/household projects in the comfort of your own home or garage. Want to be a carpenter? You better know the basics of woodworking and how to operate power tools. Fancy yourself as a construction worker? Learn how to put up a wall in your unfinished basement. Do you see being a mechanic in your future? Tinker with your car, learn how to change your own oil…you get the picture.

You can learn the basics of anything online. While the trades require more hands-on skills than a lot of other jobs, there are textbooks and YouTube tutorials on any trade you may want to pursue. While not necessarily a must, knowing the basics of your trade will definitely give you an advantage when you start at a tech school.

Dipping your toes into the waters of trade work will also help you figure out if working with your hands is something you find satisfying, have a competence for, and want to pursue further.

The Path to Becoming a Tradesman

Although it may look a little different depending on the trade and even the state you’re working in, there is a general path to trades work that we can take a look at:

1. Have a high school diploma.

First, you need to graduate high school or have earned your GED. Without a high school diploma, there are very few jobs one can hold outside of retail and food service. Also important, although it may not seem like it, is taking the SAT or ACT. While those scores won’t be used for your entrance into a 4-year college, they can and will be looked at when applying for apprenticeships (more on that a little later). Particularly, math and science scores will be assessed, and although it probably won’t make or break your acceptance into a program, it could elevate you above other candidates in competitive fields and get you better apprenticeships.

vintage shop class woodworking painting

If you’re lucky enough to attend a high school that offers shop class, take advantage of that opportunity. It will help you determine if you enjoy working with your hands, and give you a foundational knowledge of DIY work. Even if you don’t end up going into the trades, it’ll make you more handy as a grown man!

Just because you’re looking at blue collar work doesn’t mean you can slack off in high school. This rings especially true in dense metropolitan areas, where unions will have lines out the door for apprenticeship applications. You can bet in those instances that higher GPAs and test scores will set you apart.

2. Receive formal training in your field.

vintage shop class auto maintenance mechanics

After graduating high school, most tradesmen will attend some sort of schooling for a year or two, be it a community college or technical school. Community college is in many ways just a pared down version of a 4-year liberal arts school. You’ll get training in a specific field, but also often be required to take classes that aren’t related to your area of study in order to earn an associate degree. Community college will also cost more, as you’re getting those additional credits. With a technical school (also sometimes called trade school or vocational school), your training is dedicated entirely to your field of study. This often makes technical school a shorter program, and you’re only earning a certificate rather than a degree. In many cases that doesn’t matter with trade work, but it might be beneficial to get that associate degree for the sake of having a well-rounded education. It really just depends on your goals, educational desires, and budget as an individual.

While formal training like this may not be required for apprenticeships, these beginner’s courses will give you a leg up on other candidates (as mentioned above, especially in urban areas). In the plumbing world, for instance, you’d learn about water supply and drainage systems, as well as the basics of piping, fittings, valves, etc. If I was looking to become an electrician, I’d learn about currents, power grids, and how not to die by electric shock.

In more rural areas, or in places where there is a shortage of workers — such as the Gulf Coast — you may be able to go right from high school to an apprenticeship program. It may also be the case that an apprenticeship has a relationship with a local school, and you’d earn your associate degree through getting your work experience.

So while there are exceptions, this class work is highly recommended by employers and by unions and will get you better apprenticeships, which leads to the next and most important step for the aspiring tradesman…

3. The apprenticeship.

vintage blue collar workers working on engine pieces

Apprenticeships are most often run by a local union chapter, but could possibly also be run by non-union contractors. The non-union variety are few and far between, so do your due diligence about the quality of the program if going that route (more on unions below). You can call your state’s labor department or even local tech schools to get more info about non-union certification/apprenticeships.

The apprenticeship phase of your trade career is 4-5 years of paid on-the-job training, as well as continued classroom work (which may or may not be paid). You’ll apply via a written application, as well as take an aptitude test (you can see why some formal schooling would be helpful). In most cases you’d be working under a Master tradesman, who would then sign off on your hours worked, allowing you to move into the next phase of your career.

During the apprenticeship, you can expect to start out getting paid about half of what you’ll make as a certified tradesman, and each year you’ll earn little bit more. In year one, this is often between $10 and $20 per hour. Not only is that a decent wage for someone just starting out in a career, these are years when many young men are attending a four-year college, and paying five figures a year to do so.

Listen to our podcast with Mike Rowe about the trades:

4. Becoming a Journeyman or Master.

vintage architects office men looking at blueprints

You’ll have to complete a certain amount of apprenticeship hours before applying and testing to be a Journeyman. That title just means you’ve completed your apprenticeship, have passed a test on your skills and knowledge, no longer have to work under someone else’s license, and are then a certified tradesman.

In most trade fields, once you’ve spent 3-6 years as a Journeyman, you can work towards becoming a Master. This requires additional classroom training as well as a certification test. Passing the test and becoming a Master is much like the promotion from General Manager to Regional Manager – there’s better pay and benefits, but also more responsibility and people working under you. A Master Tradesman is often responsible for securing permits, designing systems and blueprints (rather than just implementing them), and training apprentices and Journeymen.

5. Find your niche and acquire more certifications.

Just as with white collar work, being a Mr. T (having a breadth of knowledge, but also an expertise in a single area or two) is beneficial to your career. With my electrician example, once I became a Journeyman, I’d likely find a specialty as a residential electrician, a research electrician, a hospital electrician, heck even a marine electrician is a possibility. The niches in the trades are endless, and once certified you’re sure to find something that calls out to you.

To recap, the path to becoming a tradesman is generally as follows:

  1. Earn a high school diploma (or GED)
  2. Take courses at a community college or technical/vocational school
  3. Obtain an apprenticeship, which will last for anywhere from 2 to 5 years
  4. Become licensed through a union or trade association, generally with the title of Journeyman or Master
  5. Continue to hone your skills and earn more niche certifications

Know that some of the trades do have shortened routes. For instance, to become an aircraft mechanic, you enter an FAA-certified school, get classroom and practical training for 1-2 years, take a test, and come away certified to work on airplanes. It’s a similar path for auto mechanics, as well as less technical trades like commercial painters. From there, as with most blue collar fields, you can earn additional certifications.

With so many trades and specializations out there, it’s important to do your own research on what your desired field of work requires. This is where Google comes in real handy; you can simply search for “How to become a …” and you’ll often get results straight from government regulation pages or union/trade organization pages. Mike Rowe’s website is another great resource for finding schools in your area, getting scholarships and financial aid, and contact information for trades organizations (don’t hesitate to call — all the folks I talked with were extremely helpful and delighted that someone wanted to talk about the trades!).

If You’re a Vet

If you’re a U.S. military veteran, you may have had (or are having) a hard time finding a job that fits you. You may not be up-to-date with changes to the modern workforce, or perhaps you just realized that being in an office isn’t what you’re cut out for. It was with those folks in mind that the non-profit organization Helmets to Hardhats was created. It seeks to connect vets with training, apprenticeships, and ultimately, long-term careers specifically in the construction industry.

What’s great about this program is that no experience or prior training is necessary. The military will cover all of that at no charge to you, and you can even use Montgomery GI Bill benefits to supplement your apprenticeship income. They also have a relationship with Wounded Warriors to provide these same opportunities to disabled vets.

Getting a Job: A Very Short Primer on Unions

Unions can be hard to figure out if you aren’t in one. Office dwellers likely only know of what they read in the papers, which is often politically driven. To clear some things up about how unions work, I spoke with Tom Owens from North America’s Building Trades Unions.

In about 3/4 of cases, tradesmen are part of a union. The ones who aren’t have found certification through another route, and have the freedom to work wherever they want and for how much they want — provided they can find that work, of course. While the merits of unions are hotly debated, they’re a reality of our work economy (no need to get into the pros and cons of unions here!). In most cases, there are truly benefits and downsides to being part of one.

The most basic definition of a union is that it is an organization that lobbies for its members’ pay, benefits, hours, working conditions, etc. They’re based around particular trades — electrical, construction, aircraft maintenance, etc — and negotiate directly with employers.

As noted above, most tradesmen have been certified through a union. Once your apprenticeship is complete and you’re certified, you can go one of two common routes: 1) use the union’s referral program to get placed at a job with a contractor or 2) be an entrepreneur and start your own business (in which case you’ll also likely receive union assistance with business training and support). If going the first route, as most do, your pay, benefits, work conditions, etc. are determined by what the union has negotiated. This is all put together in a contract called a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). These agreements will be for a set term, and then negotiated again once the term is up. When you see strikes in the news, it’s because a union and an employer can’t agree on the conditions of the CBA. Being in a union obviously takes away some autonomy, but independent research shows that most union workers make more money than they would striking out on their own. If you’re in a union, your path to getting a job will be fairly easy, especially if in a metropolitan area. If you live in a rural location, you may need to travel a bit to work. If you aren’t part of a union, you apply and pitch your merits and negotiate for jobs just like you would for an office position.

Another factor in determining whether to be part of a union or not is whether you work in a state with a Right To Work law. These laws, passed in 24 states, prohibit union security agreements. In layman’s terms, this means a union cannot require an employee’s membership in said union. For instance, if someone wants to work at a UPS loading facility and there’s a union in place, a Right To Work statute means that person doesn’t have to join the union in order to work at that job. In states without a Right To Work law, the union could have a provision in the CBA stating that all employees must be part of the union.

To see which states have Right To Work laws, click here. If your state doesn’t have this law on the books, it may be harder to find a job as a non-union worker, as unions/employers can pretty much require union participation (at least in terms of paying dues).

The waters are still a little muddy for me when it comes to unions, especially since each one has different bylaws, and there are various governing bodies as well. Readers, please feel free to add your insights and more info about unions (or your particular union) and how they operate in the comments.

Reviving Blue Collar Work Series Conclusion

vintage steel workers new york skyscraper waving

The quintessential American worker used to conjure up images of greased elbows, blue oxford work shirts, and bulky ironworkers with a hard hat on the noggin and hammer in hand. Today, it’s a skinny guy with a Mac in one hand and Starbucks in the other, driving to an office park full of cubicles. While that shift isn’t all bad, it’s certainly affected our culture in some negative ways. We’re fatter and more out of shape than ever before, we have more stress in our lives, we’re more bored at work and switch jobs more frequently, and in general people describe themselves as less happy than they did 50 years ago.

In today’s society, the diagnosis and solution to these ailments seem to take only one form: you must not be in the job you were “meant” to do, and everything will simply fall into place once you find your true passion. Yet while folks have been trying to follow this advice for several decades now, guys don’t seem any happier than they used to be.

It’s time to replace the endless and often fruitless search for one’s passion, with the search for satisfaction and fulfillment, and to acknowledge that it’s quite possible to find those rewards outside of white collar work.

For the better part of 70 years, it’s been the assumption that top students would go to a 4-year university, get a bachelor’s degree (at minimum), then continue on in an office environment, working their way up the ranks until they’re in the corner office on the highest floor. Only the students who can’t hack it end up in trade school, and blue collar work is seen as a dead end path.

In truth, blue collar work has a multitude of benefits, and should be a serious consideration for any high school student thinking about what to do with his life, or any man currently in a job he hates. The pay is good, the job security is strong, and trades work comes with numerous intangible advantages — from greater autonomy to the satisfaction of working with one’s hands and solving concrete problems.

Blue collar work is ultimately deserving of much greater respect than we currently offer it. Tradesmen made America what it is. Our buildings, our roads, our homes, our cars, our infrastructure of abundant energy and clean water – all of these things were built by the calloused and greasy hands of blue collar workers. Our culture of hard work and hustle and daring was forged by bootstrapping men atop iron beams hundreds of feet in the air. While it may seem these careers belong in a museum in our techno-entrepreneur world, that couldn’t be further from the truth. America still needs new skyscrapers, abundant energy, updated roads and highways, and water systems that will save us from droughts. These are projects that are undertaken by the tradesman, not the white collar office man.

What I’ve tried to impart throughout this series is the absolute necessity of both types of work in our world. We need those who work deftly with their hands, and those who work primarily in front of a computer screen. So if life in a cubicle doesn’t seem like the right path for you, forget the old stereotypes and myths that the only good jobs are those that require a bachelor’s degree. Our world truly needs those willing to get their hands a little dirty (and you’ll be well compensated to boot!).

Throughout the year, as part of this series on reviving blue collar work, I’ll be doing So You Want My Job interviews with tradesmen in various fields. Plumbers, truckers, welders, mechanics, and even an elevator technician. Stay tuned!

Read the Entire Series

4 Myths About the Skilled Trades 
5 Benefits of Working in the Skilled Trades
How to Start a Career in the Trades

Reviving Blue Collar Work: 5 Benefits of Working in the Skilled Trades

vintage man sitting portrait with saws hand tools

A couple weeks ago, I outlined and (hopefully) debunked four common myths about skilled labor. While these stereotypes about blue collar work may have been true 50 years ago, they simply aren’t the case in today’s world.

In the 90s and early 00s, everything was about the business world. Wall Street was going gangbusters, this new fangled thing called the internet was taking off, and dream jobs were those in which you sat in an office with a computer and made millions. Those jobs were not terribly difficult to come by. Today’s youth have those same notions of where the good jobs are, but nowhere near the same success in finding them. While the job market is improving from the economy’s nosedive six years ago, it’s still not what it was pre-recession, especially for new college graduates, for whom the unemployment rate is at 8.5%, versus 5.8% for the workforce as a whole. It’s time young people looked outside the white collar box when it comes to landing a steady, good paying job.

My aim with this article is to convince you that blue collar jobs are in fact what some young men ought to aspire to, just like they aspire to be a lawyer or banker. I’m not trying to convince you that blue collar jobs are better (though in some cases they will be, just as in some cases white collar jobs will be better), but that they are simply on par with office jobs by nearly every measurable factor in terms of what makes a career a “good” one. That’s the stereotype that most needs breaking — that blue collar careers are beneath white collar ones and less desirable. The simple reality is that they aren’t, and here are 5 good reasons why:

1. Trade School: Cheaper & Shorter

One of the biggest benefits to working in the skilled trades is the education required. While there are many positives to going to 4 years of school for a bachelor’s degree, there are also a few big negatives, including cost. Since 1990, tuition costs have risen over 300%, far outpacing the growth of the economy. When costs rise at 7-8% per year, while inflation grows 2-3% per year, you end up with a product that becomes unaffordable. For many folks, though, that unaffordability isn’t standing in the way, because student loans are easy to come by. Because of that, about 2/3 of students with bachelor’s degrees are leaving college with debt that averages $26,000 per student. That’ll make for a $300 monthly payment for a decade. (From experience, it’s a little depressing when your student loan bill is more than your car payment.) All in all, your average bachelor’s degree is likely going to cost you over $100,000 — closer to $150k if completely financed through loans.

The vast majority of training programs for the skilled trades, on the other hand, last from 6 months to 2 years, and will cost just over $30,000. Even if that cost is entirely financed by student loans, you’re looking at a total of $40,000, which is still a savings of at least $110k!

This makes for a huge opportunity cost for those going to 4-year colleges. You’re spending an extra 2-3 years in school, paying tens of thousands per year, while the tradesman is already graduated and earning money (in some cases, making six figures as a 21-year-old).

One final factor is simply that some 18-year-olds aren’t ready for a college environment. You’re thrown off the cliff from your warm and comfortable home life into total independence. It’s not an easy transition for anyone; in fact, about 40% of all undergrad enrollees will drop out before earning a degree.

Trade school offers a nice on-ramp to independence. You’ll often stay close(r) to home, you receive real-world, hands-on training from the get-go, and you aren’t spending every waking moment with folks your same age and in the same position in life (which can make for a difficult social transition once out of college). Again, there are certainly benefits to attending a 4-year university (we’ve outlined the pros and cons here), but the big pros of trade school are that you’ll save a lot on tuition, start being able to make money sooner, and can start taking measurable steps towards adulthood more quickly.

2. Compensation: Trades Jobs Are Well-Paying

Even those who are concerned about the hefty price tag of college still feel that while the cost may be high, it’s always worth it, since it will increase their lifetime earnings potential.

This worry over compensation definitely looms looms large in holding teenagers back from considering trades work. And while money is not the most salient factor in determining a career, it is certainly important. The assumption is that the income ceiling is higher for white collar work than it is for blue collar. And frankly, in an absolute sense, that’s true. Those who are pulling in a million a year aren’t tradesman; the vast majority are college graduates. But these very wealthy individuals represent a miniscule percentage of the workforce.

If we look at averages, which is where most of us are and will be in terms of our career, the paychecks for trades are either at or above other careers. One study of the trades from just the state of Michigan found the above to be true — that the ceiling was higher for white collar, but the median was actually higher for blue collar. The range for the skilled trades (per hour) was $13-$34, for a median of $21/hour. For all other occupations, the range was $8-$39, for a median of $16/hour.

Now, could those numbers be skewed, especially on the low-end, by workers who only have a high school education? Absolutely. So what happens if we just compare national averages for wages earned by college educated white collar employees and tradesmen? They’re almost the same, with white collar folks coming in at $1,000 more per year. Over the course of a 40-year career, that ends up as a fair amount of money. But when you factor in college costs, plus a few more years in the workforce, that difference actually begins to favor the blue collar worker.

Let’s take a look at the starting salaries of the largest skilled trades careers, and you’ll see they match up against the average starting salary for college grads (which is reported to be $48,000 – and let me tell you, I don’t know a single bachelor’s degree holder who started out at that high of a salary!).

  • Maintenance Mechanic: $38,000
  • Aircraft Mechanic: $49,000
  • Sheet Metal Mechanic: $47,000
  • Driver: $51,000
  • Electrician: $44,000
  • Painter: $35,000
  • Machinist: $37,000
  • Pipefitter: $49,000

Remember, those are the most common blue collar jobs. If you look at the higher end of trades work, you’ll see wages that are much higher than college grads:

  • Locomotive Engineer: $63,000
  • Elevator Repairer/Installer: $73,000
  • Subway Operator: $60,000
  • Nuclear Technician: $69,000
  • Aerospace Operations: $61,000

Remember, these are base salaries that come just as a result of your having the proper skills. Just like with white collar work, there are many trades fields in which you can move up the ladder and earn far more. If you show management skills and big picture vision, you’ll receive promotions and raises, just as you would in an office setting. You can also start your own business, and use your entrepreneurial, creative, and customer service skills to set yourself apart from the pack, at which point your income potential is as high as your ability to hustle.

You may be surprised to learn that being a tradesman could get into that somewhat hallowed six-figure salary range in far less time, and with far less money spent on schooling, than just about any other field of work. And you could possibly make even more than that; think a plumber can’t make a million bucks a year? Think again!

Beyond wages, there are many other factors that actually play a more important role in workplace satisfaction. Which leads to our next point…

3. Job Security: The Skilled Trades Can’t Be Outsourced

Compensation is important, but only the third most important factor in overall job satisfaction. The first is actually “opportunity to use skills and abilities” (more on that below) and the second is job security. So while pay in the trades may be commensurate with white collar work, for some, these other factors will boost this type of work ahead of occupying a cubicle.

In our new economy, complete job security just doesn’t exist. Anything can happen to any company, and you can be let go. But some jobs are a lot more secure than others. Information and tech jobs are particularly vulnerable to being taken over by robots or moved overseas, but even once-secure jobs in the medical and legal sectors have begun to be outsourced as well.

The trades, on the other hand, simply cannot be outsourced. While the world may not always need bloggers, it will always need mechanics, electricians, plumbers, welders, etc. When you’re locked out of your house, you won’t phone a customer service line and deal with robots trying to resolve your issue, you’ll call a locksmith (unless of course you can pick your own lock!). The roads and bridges in this country will always be built here. Our skyscraper projects won’t be constructed in France and shipped over (that was a one-time deal with Lady Liberty). While jobs in the information/tech/customer service sectors can always be shipped away, the careers that require literal hands-on work cannot be.

One of the points that Mike Rowe hammers home in his book, Profoundly Disconnected, is that Americans are disconnected from the things that keep our lives and society running on a daily basis (hence the title of the book). Without the trades, our society would literally crumble. Roads/bridges would go into disrepair. Cars would break down and not be fixed, and new cars wouldn’t be made to replace them. Our electrical grid would shut down and we’d lose power. Plumbing would break down or back up, and we’d all be swimming in our own waste. Not a pretty picture, is it? It may seem sort of dystopian, but in fact our infrastructure is falling apart before our eyes. The American Society of Civil Engineers rates it as a D+. 60 Minutes, just this week, did a feature on America’s crumbling infrastructure. This is an incredibly salient issue. Without more skilled tradesmen, it will only get worse.

Of course, as 60 Minutes points out, politicians need to fund these projects, to pay these tradesmen, to fix our decaying roads and bridges, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject. Yet even if these projects don’t get funded for a long time…

Listen to my podcast with Mike Rowe about the trades:

4. Availability: There Are Plenty of Jobs For the Taking

Trades jobs are not only very secure, there’s a whole lot of openings for them as well.

In the last post I briefly mentioned the skills gap here in America – the state of having more jobs available than workers who are trained and able to take those jobs. A big part of that reality is simply that there are more tradesmen retiring than entering the field. Among all jobs in the US, workers aged 25-44 make up about 48% of the workforce; among skilled trades jobs that number is 46%, a mere 2-point difference. When you look at the 45-54 age range the picture is very different. That group makes up 23% of the general workforce, but 32% of skilled trades, meaning that millions more tradesmen will be retiring in the next 15 years than white collar professionals.

For the blue collar worker, there are jobs to be had. They may not be in your city of choice, but that’s a reality faced by much more than just tradesmen. Certain industries flock to certain geographical regions (show biz and Hollywood, fashion and NYC, etc.), so to be successful you may have to move. According to some estimates (including Mike Rowe and his foundation, which works to put tradesmen in good careers), there are literally millions of unfilled jobs right now in the skilled trades, with many more to be created in the years to come.

In fact, in just the next two years, an expected 2.5 million middle-skill jobs (those that require less than a bachelor’s degree but more than a high school diploma) will be added to the workforce, accounting for an incredible 40% of all job growth. The city of Houston alone is expected to add 100,000 jobs in that same time period. North Dakota is in the midst of a petroleum boom, requiring not just oil/gas tradesman, but also electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc. to build up the infrastructure. Atlanta has a booming film industry that employs almost 80,000 people, with many more needed for the technical aspects like setting up lighting and sound, set construction, etc.

All over the country, the skilled tradesman is in demand.

5. Intangibles: The Satisfaction of Blue Collar Work

painting vintage electrician working on electrical panel

Above, I mentioned that the number one factor in overall job satisfaction is being able to use your skills and abilities. It was in 2012 when that factor overtook job security for the first time, just four years removed from the economy crashing. People are quickly discovering that feeling happy and fulfilled at work is incredibly important.

Do you want to spend 40 years of your life bored and dissatisfied for most of your day? Obviously not. But that’s what 70% of Americans feel at work, with highly educated people actually being more likely to be disengaged with their workplace. While boredom can obviously happen at any job, the tradesman who’s working with his hands all day simply has less opportunity for disengagement, as boredom at work often happens when there just isn’t enough to do. Idleness is not often a problem for the blue collar man.

In the last article, I mentioned the false notion that one has to “follow your passion” in order to be happy at work. This is often taken to mean that you should find something you enjoy, then acquire skills in that field. Actually, it works the other way around; find a way to use your skills, no matter what those skills are, and you’ll be passionate about your work. I won’t go into that at length here, but give that section a read from the previous piece.

Other intangibles to be mentioned are things like autonomy at work and work/life balance. In an age where most people’s jobs are accessible by internet and smartphone, disconnecting from work is hard to do. You see emails come in at night, and you respond almost without thinking about it. You hop on the computer for a second, and it turns into an hour or two of work because it’s right there, and seems urgent. You become a slave to email, and to your higher-ups, even if that’s not the intention. When you work with your hands, you can come home at night and actually disconnect from your job. You aren’t always “plugged in,” which gives you a better chance to refresh your body and mind for the next day’s work. Of course, you can choose to work after hours if you’d like – but you’ll also be able to charge your customers a premium for your services if you do!

One final factor is simply the satisfaction that can come from doing something tangible and concrete with your time. Fixing things, building things, seeing the actual, physical fruit of your labor; this is often far more personally fulfilling than spending 8 hours on an excel spreadsheet. As author Matthew Crawford notes in a great article in the New York Times, “Many of us do work that feels more surreal than real. Working in an office, you often find it difficult to see any tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day? Where the chain of cause and effect is opaque and responsibility diffuse, the experience of individual agency can be elusive.” In fact, in our modern economy, 40% of jobs are related to coordinating and mediating rather than actually doing something directly.

The woodworking hobbyist pursues this pastime because it feels really good to build something. The tinkerer of cars loves doing it because he can see something dead come to life, as a product of his own two hands. There is a satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from manual work that simply cannot be achieved in any other setting. For some folks, manual work will remain a fruitful hobby, but for others, it can blossom into a meaningful and long-lasting career.

Conclusion

When we’re weighing which types of jobs to apply for, or even which to accept from multiple offers should we be so lucky, the differentiators often come down to benefits. Pay, job security, balance, work environment, etc. For too long the skilled trades have been neglected as not having any benefits. Thankfully, the tide is turning, and people are starting to see that blue collar work offers some real advantages over white collar work. There are jobs available, pay is good, job security is excellent, and the satisfaction may be greater than being in the information industry.

In some cases and for some people, better jobs and benefits will come as a result of a 4-year degree and being in an office setting. That’s just fine. But for some folks, that’s just not the case. My hope is that the young men reading this, as well as the seasoned men considering a career move, will weigh all their options, and determine what’s best for them and their future.

Read the Entire Series

4 Myths About the Skilled Trades 
5 Benefits of Working in the Skilled Trades
How to Start a Career in the Trades

Reviving Blue Collar Work: 4 Myths About the Skilled Trades

vintage welder working in factory sparks flying

“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.”

Listen to my podcast with Mike Rowe about the trades:

Myth #3: You have to follow your passion, and welding isn’t your passion.

“Follow your dreams!” is a phrase that our culture is in love with these days. The idea is that in high school or college you’ll realize what you love to do, and then get an education that follows so that you can have your “dream job.” What this actually ends up doing though is simply filling teens and twentysomethings with a whole lot of angst about what to do with their lives. When options are seemingly limitless, we have a really hard time choosing. We end up thinking that our lives are ruined if we don’t find that one thing we really love doing.

Thankfully, and although this is extremely hard to realize sometimes, your life isn’t limitless. The reality is that most people, especially in their late teens and early twenties, have no idea what they actually want to do. But because of the stereotypes that surround blue collar work, they go to business or law school by default, because having an office job is better than being an elevator technician. How could anyone possibly be passionate about fixing elevators? The answer to that might surprise you.

There’s a lot of work being done to show that passion or fulfillment in your workplace doesn’t come through “following your dreams,” but a whole host of factors that are very different from that outdated advice. In fact, research is finding that passion follows hard work and being good at what you do, rather than precedes it. What this means practically is that if you grease your elbows and master the trade of being a plumber, you’ll actually come to enjoy your work.

The truth is that our “passion” ends up being a combination of what we’re good at and what we work hard at. Fulfillment at work is more about mastery and autonomy and balance than about a pre-existing passion. Love for your work rarely springs from fulfilling a built-in burning desire in your heart to do that one thing in the world and that one thing only. In fact, turning a hobby you’re passionate about into a job is often a surefire way to kill that burning desire good and dead.

To learn more about the myth of finding your passion, I cannot suggest strongly enough that you listen to Brett’s podcast with author Cal Newport. It’s one of my favorite AoM podcasts of all time, and one I think every teenager and twentysomething (and beyond, really) should listen to.

Myth #4: Dirty, hard work is undesirable work.

work smart not hard poster

In Mike Rowe’s new book, Profoundly Disconnected, he tells the story of being in his high school guidance counselor’s office in the late 1970s and seeing the above poster. “Work smart, not hard.” While the sentiment may have been more akin to “Hard work alone is good, but being smart is important, too!” the high school student probably read it as, “Yes! I don’t have to work hard if I’m smart!” The students who saw these posters in the late 70s and early 80s are now running companies and passing that belief onto younger generations, even if in subconscious ways. Beyond those CEOs, there are authors, podcasters, “lifehackers” — all advocating working smarter rather than harder, thereby bypassing the menial, boring stuff. Heck, you can work a 4-hour week and make millions! (Or so is claimed.)

work smart and hard poster mike rowe

Thankfully, with Mike Rowe’s help, that message is being put in its rightful place: the garbage. He’s replacing it with a new message: “Work smart AND hard.”

The truth is that the world belongs to those who hustle. Ambition without elbow grease won’t get you anywhere. Even this generation’s career heroes — the late Steve Jobs, Zuck, Richard Branson — work(ed) insanely hard at their jobs. You only see glitz, but they’ve burned more than their fair share of midnight oil.

Yeah, you think, but working hard with your brain sounds better than working hard with your brawn. It’s true that there are different kinds of hard work, but they’re both hard in their own way. Each type of hard has its own pros and cons, and the hardness of physical labor doesn’t automatically make anyone less happy than the difficulty in typing at a computer all day.

Over the course of Mike Rowe’s stint as host of Dirty Jobs, he came to discover something very interesting about hard, dirty work. Before he started that job, when he was in the brainstorming phase of the show, he expected the people he ran into to really hate their work. But one after another, almost without fail, they loved it. He in fact called them the happiest group of people he’s ever seen. I’ll repeat: passion for your work will follow your working hard at something and achieving mastery in it. Swinging a hammer every day is never going to be as hard as filing TPS reports from 9-5, if you’re hating every single minute of it.

Beyond hard work, many trades are also simply dirty and grimy. We’ve recently highlighted our culture’s obsession with being clean. Antibacterial soaps and boiling stuff rule the day. This attitude carries over into how we view work. We want things to be neat and tidy and minimalist, just like that clean and beautiful Apple laptop sitting on your clean desk.

When we grow up uber-clean as children, we end up with an aversion to stuff that’s dirty or gross. And the reality is that a lot of tradesmen end the day with dirty hands. While there are some trades that don’t get grimy, Kevin Simpson estimates that about 90% do. Plumbers, electricians, construction workers — these are jobs where you shower at the end of your day, not the beginning.

In a sterile society, dirty jobs become undesirable. Perhaps that’s why their pay is increasing and job demand in the trades is higher than ever before. Mike Rowe believes that our culture is heading to a point where an hour of plumbing is going to cost more than an hour with the psychologist. If you can get over your fear of dirt, grime, and sweat, you have the potential to make a far better living than your office-dwelling peers. And you may even discover that it feels good to be using your body and hands every day, that it’s satisfying to be in touch with the elements, even when those elements are grimy, and that nothing feels better than taking a well-earned shower when you actually have dirt to clean off.

We’ve now covered the myths of working in the trades. In a couple weeks, we’ll get into the benefits and why every young man, or anyone considering a career move, should look at skilled labor. For now, I’ll leave you with a beautiful ode to manual labor in the form of an excerpt from a speech given by Luciano Palogan to the Philippine School of Arts and Trades in 1910:

Nothing great or good can be accomplished without labor and toil.

The days when manual labor was looked upon as a disgrace and the time when it was considered as the occupation of the degraded man have passed away. The days have disappeared when the student walked a block to call a “muchacho” to carry his books to school. And the unsoiled, soft, and cushion-like hands, the pride of the young man a few years ago, have gone out of fashion.

The Filipino has turned over a new leaf. He now realizes that manual labor is not a disgrace but an honor; that it is not manual labor that places the man in a low rank among men in society, but it is manual labor that raises him to a higher standard of life.

Manual labor squeezes the sweat out of the muscles and roughens the hands, but in turn it restores strength and increases their size. Roughness of the hands and scorchings of the sun on the face are the truest badge that a man can wear to show that he belongs to the great society of the workers and not of drones.

Read the Entire Series

4 Myths About the Skilled Trades
5 Benefits of Working in the Skilled Trades
How to Start a Career in the Trades