Desk Job Blues: Rethinking Middle-Skill Jobs

The perception about blue-collar careers won't change until students are better informed about the opportunities, and the truth, about what awaits them in the workforce.
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For the last few decades, the assumption has been that the only way to financial and occupational success was with a four-year degree and a cushy job in an office behind a desk. But the world isn't run from behind a desk. It takes people with hands-on skills that build, repair, maintain, and create that make the world operate. In fact, 61 percent of people working in the U.S., are employed in jobs categorized as blue-collar, according to a study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

In every state, the percentage of people working in blue-collar fields is greater than those in white-collar fields. So why do blue-collar jobs get such a black mark when they make up the majority of the workforce? It's all about perception. It's a common assumption that sitting behind a desk equates to a larger paycheck, but the reality is having a white-collar job doesn't always mean having a larger paycheck or bank account.

According to a recent Pay Scale survey of job duties, salaries and career paths, several surprising facts came to light about the average income of some careers, like that an elevator installer and repair technician makes, on average, three percent more than a civil engineer. Or that a construction contractor's average annual salary is six percent higher than a clinical laboratory scientist. Want to take a guess at who makes more money by the middle of their career, a marketing manager or telephone equipment engineer? What about an architect or a high voltage lineman? The comparisons go on and on.

But pay isn't the only factor that explains why many people are perfectly happy with their blue-collar career. For some, the idea of staring at a computer screen surrounded by the same four walls for eight hours a day isn't a dream job, it's a nightmare. And blue-collar jobs no longer mean a life of assembly-line work on factory floors. Many in blue-collar industries cite the constant change of scenery and job duties as one of best aspects of their job.

In an article by CareerBuilder, educational administrative leader-turned-plumber Kevin Barley said the sameness of the corporate world became irritating so he made a change. "I never drive up to the same building, park in the same space, walk the same route, sit in the same chair," Barley said in the story. "I go from home to home, meet hundreds of new people and no two days are alike." And the work itself can be very rewarding. As a plumber Barley said he gets to help people when they need it most, and he's usually a welcome sight. The same can be said for heating and air conditioning service technicians, mechanics, nurses, and many more. If wearing steel-toed boots and a helmet to work is more appealing than donning a suit and tie every day, than the growing middle-skill job market may be the perfect fit.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that middle skill jobs-- jobs that require education and training beyond high school, but less than a bachelor's degree-- will account for 45 percent of all job openings through 2014. And according to an in-depth article by USA Today titled "Where the jobs are: The new blue-collar," an estimated 2.5 million new middle-skill jobs are expected to be added to the workforce by 2017.

The story highlights Joseph Poole, who makes more than $100,000 a year in wages and overtime monitoring the manufacturing process at a Chevron Phillips petrochemical plant in Houston. Poole didn't get his job with a graduate degree in engineering, but through a two-year course at a local community college. While not all jobs in this new blue-collar era pay as much as Poole's, all pay at least $13 an hour, with most paying more than that.

The middle-skill job growth in this country-- these new blue-collar jobs, are challenging the long-held notion that only white-collar jobs lead to prosperity. While the recession hit some skilled-trade industries hard like manufacturing and construction, there has now been a resurgence in these fields with a higher demand for technicians, a position which pays more. But the negative perception remains and many still think of blue-color jobs as "dead-end" positions. So, young people aren't entering technical and vocational programs to fill the growing need for these middle-skill jobs. Many of them are choosing rather to overlook satisfying and rewarding careers in fields where jobs are plentiful because of an outdated stigma.

The perception about blue-collar careers won't change until students are better informed about the opportunities, and the truth, about what awaits them in the workforce. We need to rethink middle-skill jobs because the future of the country's workforce isn't pristine white, but hands-on blue.

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