America has enough people at desks. While demand for desk workers has plateaued in recent years – with a few notable exceptions, like tech – the demand for service workers and manual laborers is still booming.
Nurses, for example, are currently some of the most in-demand workers in America. The carpentry trade is projected to grow by 24 percent through 2022, with average wages approaching $90,000 annually. And “Construction and real estate [are] always needed and in demand,” one Keystone Construction Corp employee explained in a kununu review.
Society will always need retail salespeople (the most common occupation in the United States), cashiers, food preparers and servers, housekeepers, flight attendants, hairdressers, construction workers and police officers. But we need them especially now: the average age of blue-collar workers is older than the workforce as a whole, which means that as Boomers retire, a large labor gap will open if younger workers don’t fill it. For instance, an estimated two million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled in the next decade due to insufficient workers. This growing gap means job security for millennials who choose blue collar work.
[T]he average age of blue-collar workers is older than the workforce as a whole, which means that as Boomers retire, a large labor gap will open...
Except to the finite extent that some of their work can be automated, blue-collar employees aren’t at risk of being out of work now or in several decades from now. The same is true for high-skill knowledge work, which, as Cal Newport argues in Deep Work, will become increasingly rare and valued in the age of automation.
The same cannot be said for low-level desk jobs, however, which are perhaps the most vulnerable to obsoletion. This group includes secretaries, telemarketers, bookkeepers, data entry and auditing clerks, and customer service representatives. In an increasingly global job market, offshoring threatens entry-level desk jobs.
But blue-collar work is in demand for a reason: fewer people want to do it. Why? Employee reviews at kununu, where I’m a millennial blogger, reveal the challenging, thankless side of blue-collar employment.
First, blue-collar fields are perpetually understaffed, which strains existing workers. For example, dozens of nurses complained of the near-ubiquitous phenomenon of understaffed hospitals. One nurse at Wilmington Health And Rehabilitation Center reported 16-hour shifts due to chronic understaffing. Likewise, a Starbucks manager reported being put in an “unfair position of delaying or denying time off because we were understaffed.”
Secondly, employers show little loyalty to low-skill workers. Blue-collar workers have job security in the sense that there will always be work available somewhere. But employees in jobs that don’t require lots of advanced skills or education are replaceable — so there may not be job security at any one company. As a Hannaford/Delhaize employee explained, “Unfortunately, as an unskilled laborer you are easily replaced. You are a cog in the wheel.” You are, in a Superior Energy Services employee’s words, “a replaceable asset.”
Third, blue-collar workers are undervalued. One kununu reviewer from the USPS exclaimed, “Blue-collar workers are zeks in the gulag!”, referring to Soviet forced-labor camps in the mid-1900s. “Everyday blue-collar workers are not compensated properly nor treated with respect,” an employee at Blumenthal Performing Arts wrote. There appears to be a growing divide between, as one Thompson Engineering employee put it, “management and the average blue collar employee”; the work environment is one of “us versus them.” One employee put it more bluntly: Capital One, he wrote, is “a perfect example of why corporations are killing the middle class. Why can’t America get ahead? 99% of us are nothing but specks to be intentionally used, crushed, and discarded.”
In turn, blue-collar employees leave, which perpetuates understaffing and poor working conditions. “They are always hiring because they keep losing employees,” one Kolmar Laboratories employee explains. This is why low wages are a “poor business approach,” another from MIC Group explains because companies can’t retain their workers. Companies “need to pay skilled labor what they are worth to retain them,” an employee at Tenere, Inc. suggested.
Society doesn’t value blue-collar workers either. Because our culture values knowledge work more highly, there are fewer blue-collar workers than ever and a stigma against the ones who remain. One McDonald’s employee observed that people believe that middle-class workers are “embarrassed to be seen working for a company like McDonald’s.” Another employer, from Prime Brokerage Middle Office, JP Morgan, explained, “If you are a middle-class family person who commutes, you are disdained.”
Today’s companies desperately need blue-collar workers, but often treat them as disposable. If every blue-collar employee demanded better, the companies that rely on their skills would be forced to create better working conditions and compensation packages. For example, one kununu reviewer from Dalton St. Post Office celebrated “aggressive unions” as a means of securing plentiful overtime, competitive pay and strong job security. This invaluable rung of the workforce has more sway than they think.
A version of this article originally appeared on kununu.
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