Mystical, Magical Blue Collar Labor

Maura Alwyen

HVAC/R Master Craftsman, Chef, Woodworker, Journeyman Metalworker, somewhat of a Blacksmith, & Author I do my own stunts & cinematography. Typos, poor word choices, wrong but similar sounding word choices are par for the course. All mistakes are artisanally crafted from the finest oopsies. Otherwise I'm just a regular girl with opinions and a point from which to shout into the void.

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69 Responses

  1. Philip H
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    says:

    I think it’s willing, and its regional. Down here in my part of the south a great many people aim for trade and technical schools for non-college degrees. Our two largest industries are shipbuilding and oil and gas, and neither expects college for initial entry into the field (though an increasing number of oil and gas jobs nudge you to get a degree while working).

    At the same time railroaders and truckers I know report that it is harder to get good trainees in. Some seem to have problems with the drug tests (which makes Jaybird’s correct push for marijuana decriminalization an interesting twist to this). But a lot of the new employees these folk see simply don’t want to do the hard grunt work for the pay they are offered. There’s a solution to that of course . . . .Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Philip H
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      My push for legalization of the devil’s lettuce has more to do with people getting arrested and thrown in jail than anything else.

      I do have a handful of issues when it comes to drug testing but I absolutely comprehend a business saying “if you test positive for weed, we will not let you use a machine press and that’s why we drug test”.

      But I also know that that means that the people in accounting can enjoy edibles on the weekend while the people who work the floor cannot.

      And that strikes me as distasteful as well.Report

      • Philip H in reply to Jaybird
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        says:

        But I also know that that means that the people in accounting can enjoy edibles on the weekend while the people who work the floor cannot.

        That’s the crux of the matter for me. Feds living in states where its legal can’t purchase it much less consume it because its not federally legal. Even when we are in positions that don’t require random drug testing.Report

      • InMD in reply to Jaybird
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        I put the floor/office distinction in ‘it goes with the territory’ bucket. We absolutely shouldn’t be wasting time and resources putting people through the criminal justice system over weed, not to mention engaging in all the collateral abuses it entails. However it doesn’t follow that all efforts must be made to make it a completely consequence free decision. Certain jobs require sobriety and there’s nothing inherently wrong with acknowledging that.

        Also it isn’t like there aren’t plenty of jobs where you can blaze all the time if it’s your thing.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to InMD
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          says:

          One can check for sobriety without a drug test that nails you for anything you’ve done in the past month.Report

          • InMD in reply to Oscar Gordon
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            says:

            If the technology exists then by all means use it. All I’m saying is that it isn’t illegitimate to require it for some jobs and not others. I don’t care if the person scanning my 3 AM 7-11 taquitos is high. But i definitely care if my airline pilot or the person operating a bulldozer across the street is.Report

            • JS in reply to InMD
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              Again, the problem is the drug test is “Are you on anything right now, and also have you used pot in the last month”.

              There are ways to determine if you’re currently high, but that would involve a separate test.

              Let’s put it this way: There are plenty of states with legal pot, so effectively this is equivalent of blackballing you from a job simply because you had a beer last weekend.

              Which, given the labor shortages, seems pretty dumb. I’m sure it’ll be another thing (like higher pay) that is simply invisible to upper management. Can’t possibly be THEIR fault.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to Oscar Gordon
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            says:

            “One can check for sobriety without a drug test that nails you for anything you’ve done in the past month.”

            One of the reasons nobody’s bothered to make a test with more sensitivity to impairment is that marijuana is illegal and any usage at all, even in the past, is an infraction.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to InMD
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          says:

          Do they alcohol test?Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy
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            says:

            I have heard stories about co-workers getting fired for having alcohol on a break from work.

            So.

            Kinda.Report

            • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird
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              says:

              I know someone who was fired for that.

              Which makes sense. Your behavior at work matters and taking a substance that does or risks compromising performance seems reasonable to make actionable.

              But what you do on weekends? Or after work? If there is no demonstrable impact on performance, who cares?

              And I can think of many, perfectly legal leisure activities that I would argue pose more potential risk to job performance than drugs.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Philip H
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      says:

      I suspect that as college attendance rates rise, the cream is being skimmed off the top of the blue collar talent pool. My father was a tradesman, but if he had been born into a generation where going to college was the norm, he probably would have been a white-collar worker. People who are college material but didn’t go to college are not extinct among the younger generations, but they’re a dying breed.

      But a lot of the new employees these folk see simply don’t want to do the hard grunt work for the pay they are offered. There’s a solution to that of course . . . .

      Not in equilibrium. Yes, any individual employer can raise wages and thereby attract more or higher-quality applicants. But there’s a point where even if you would like to have more and better applicants, it’s not actually worth the extra money. Furthermore, if you raise wages and attract applicants away from other employers, then those other employers won’t be able to hire them.

      If all blue-collar employers raise wages enough to convince people to apprentice instead of going to college. Now employers who hired college-educated workers are facing a shortage of college-educated labor. they can raise wages, but they’re all competing for a diminished pool of college-educated workers.

      In theory, there could be a large pool of labor-force nonparticipants sitting it out and waiting for higher wages. But are they the kind of people who would be interested in and good at full-time blue-collar jobs if the wages were a bit higher?

      Anyway, in equilibrium, there are always going to be employers who lose the bidding war and are unable to get the workers they want at the price they’re willing and able to pay. That’s how labor markets work. “Just raise wages” is not always the answer. But if you think you’ve discovered the secret to business success, there’s a lot of money waiting for you.Report

      • Philip H in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        North American Class 1 railroads have eliminated 33% of their workforce over the last 15 years and dropped starting wages to goose stock prices. It worked for that end, but now means they don’t have the capacity to adjust to post-pandemic service demands. The Surface Transportation Board is openly, publicly faulting them for this, and telling them they need to get back to focus on service if they want favorable STB rulings on things like the pending CP-KCS merger. That is a situation driven entirely by short term profit seeking that could be addressed via wages changes.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Philip H
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      says:

      If the problem is a small gap between not working and working a blue-collar job, it suggests two solutions: bring up the value of a blue-collar job, or bring down the benefits gained by not working. I’d say that the latter is more appropriate to government.Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky
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        Which has a better outcome for us as the citizens who direct our government policy?

        Some citizens like me think that the better outcome is to let the social safety net force higher wages, even if we pay higher consumer prices.Report

        • Philip H in reply to Chip Daniels
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          says:

          Its more then some citizens, as the Democrats in the Senate – pushing that very idea – represent 41 Million more Americans then Republicans in the Senate. Also the President pushing those ideas won by 7 million more votes.Report

        • Pinky in reply to Chip Daniels
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          says:

          I’ll grant that a lot of people wouldn’t agree with me, at least at first. I wasn’t really thinking about whether people would agree; I was pointing out that there’s more than one way to increase employment at lower-wage jobs. I’m sure you and I are near the extreme ends of policy preference in this area, and most people would fall somewhere between us.

          Your recommendation is ‘”to let the social safety net force higher wages, even if we pay higher consumer prices”. I have to note that you’d also be making the lower-waged people pay higher consumer prices, so it’s not just you and me taking the hit.

          Beyond that, I think a lot of people would agree a little more with me that, when jobs are available, healthy working-age people are less entitled to governmental support.Report

  2. Saul Degraw
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    says:

    A blue collar job can damage your body hard. Sometimes much earlier than expected. Everyone has wear and tear but blue collar work can wear and tear it down much harder. I don’t blame people for wanting to avoid that.Report

    • Philip H in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      Especially with the elimination of good defined benefit pensions and employer provided health insurance for retirees. Both of those are also fixable . . . but at the expense of some percentage of short term profits.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Philip H
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        says:

        Are you aware that “short term profits” is more than one word?

        The idea that defined-benefit pensions have been phased out for the sake of “short-term profits” is diagnostic of slogan-based thinking. The whole problem with defined-benefit pensions is that they’re great in the short term but lead to long-term sustainability problems.Report

        • Philip H in reply to Brandon Berg
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          says:

          They don’t lead to long term sustainability problems if your business model balances them against other obligations appropriately. Over the last 30 years we’ve seen all manner of corporations sacrifice all sorts of costs associated with labor (Salaries, pensions, healthcare, training etc) to maximize short term profits which in turn is now considered the primary fiduciary responsibility of a corporation (as opposed to healthy and sustained profits). That lack of balance is a huge problem. It can be addressed, should anyone choose to address it.Report

          • North in reply to Philip H
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            says:

            Certainly government has demonstrated that defined benefit pensions can be operated just fine, are hunky dory in the long run and don’t run any serious risk of melting states fiscal health like an alien in an acid vat… … … *coughs uncomfortably*.Report

            • Philip H in reply to North
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              says:

              government defined benefit pensions suffer from two problems that the private sector has analogues to – lack of appropriate revenue (what with everyone cutting taxes left and right) and the baby boomers retiring.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Philip H
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                says:

                Which all leads back to management not having a long term sustainable financial plan.Report

              • Philip H in reply to Oscar Gordon
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                says:

                agency management does – the politicians generally don’t beyond the next election cycle.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Philip H
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                says:

                I’m sure the long term finance people in a corporation have such plans, it’s the short term execs who don’t past the next quarter/year.

                There is always someone up the food chain to blame. The fact is, a defined benefit pension is money the worker doesn’t control, or even have any illusion of control. Whether or not it’s available depends on people who have little to no incentive to protect and maintain/grow those funds, protecting, maintaining, and growing those funds.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      A blue collar job can be damaging, but doesn’t have to be. Whenever I see someone whose body was ruined by blue collar work it was because of 1 of 2 things:

      1) The worker would forgo proper safety gear/protocols for the sake of comfort/expediency and got themselves injured.
      2) The workplace would forgo proper safety gear/protocols for the sake of profits/expediency and got their employees injured.

      Unions and OSHA exist to deal with problem 2, but problem 1 is a result of the stupid, and you can’t legislate away the stupid.

      When we were remodeling our house, after the contractor bailed, the guy we hired to finish was in his late 60’s and did not have a ruined body, because he spent his career practicing safety, and was careful, and took his time. I’ve known lots of guys like him, who were unwilling to trade their health for someone else’s bottom line. If more blue collar workers held that line…Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        Accidents happen. A person can be wearing all the proper gear and still have an I-beam fall on him or her or have equipment malfunction. There are also wear and tear injuries like bone spurs and rotor cuff tears.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw
          Ignored
          says:

          Those kinds of accidents are pretty rare, and when they do happen, more often than not, the root cause leads back to someone not following safety protocols.

          As for bone spurs and rotor cuffs, etc. – you can get those working out at the white collar gym. I mean, my long term injuries happened when I was a mechanic, but not because I was a mechanic. Being a mechanic was about as safe as I could be, even though I was working around gas turbines, because despite being a dangerous job, the Navy was serious about not having us maimed or killed outside of combat.Report

  3. Kristin Devine
    Ignored
    says:

    Great piece. Couldn’t agree more.

    My oldest son just graduated college with a bachelor’s degree, and is currently looking for work. His brother, four years younger, became a truck driver. It took him four weeks, he got a job that he likes right away – local and home every night – makes $20 an hour plus mileage and benefits, and even has his own office. (The being able to pass a drug test is a big deal.)

    Honestly, the elder probably should scrap the college field and go to trucking school.Report

  4. InMD
    Ignored
    says:

    I think a lot of this comes down to our one-size-fits all model for education. However changing it to more of a path-based system, while probably better in many ways, strikes me as politically impossible in the US for a host of reasons. And not all of them are even bad reasons. The ‘we pretend everyone is going to college’ approach still makes visible various uncomfortable truths about class and race even while trying to water them down. Changing would only make them far starker. Of course the benefit might be better long term economic prospects but I doubt we could swallow the trade-off.Report

  5. Saul Degraw
    Ignored
    says:

    I will expand on my point. There seems to be a school of thought that considers blue-collar work to be more virtuous and real than other forms of work. Left and right-wing variants of this school of thought exist. I don’t consider either to be true or desirable. The world is what we make it and I think it is possible to create a world where back-breaking labor is largely not done by humans but we can all be better off. It doesn’t need to be a plutocratic class and then everyone struggles below.Report

  6. Greginak
    Ignored
    says:

    As Saul noted above some blue collar jobs are hell on the body. Kids do see that. I’ve known more than a few people with good trade jobs who wanted their kids to go to college so they didn’t have an aching back at 40.

    Also trades are a big thing in lots of places. Here tons of people want into trades and high paying North Slope jobs.

    As much as people want to blame schools kids learn first in their homes. If kids are not choosing trades you gotta look at what they see at home and from people working in trades. Meet enough people in the various trades and you will see some negative aspects. One obvious issue is that for many people the trades are not the most welcoming for their demographic characteristics.Report

  7. Greginak
    Ignored
    says:

    Alert attempted thread jack in progress here.
    Has anybody heard from The Question is… /Commie Truck Driver? Haven’t seen him here In a while but I may have missed him and he hasn’t tweeted in a while. He drove a truck so this is topical and he had some health problems. Hope he is okay.Report

  8. Chip Daniels
    Ignored
    says:

    The nature of work has changed to blur the old distinctions between white and blue collar.

    I think a better, more meaningful distinction is between high skilled versus low skilled jobs.

    For example, a union electrician is comparable to a paralegal, while a retail clerk is comparable to a drywaller.Report

  9. LeeEsq
    Ignored
    says:

    There are many easier ways to earn money than going into a trade. These jobs pay just as well, have just as good benefits, and don’t wear the body. Owning a shop of sometime used to be a popular way to earn a living but these days being a manager for a big chain store can get you just as much money per year, more benefits, vacation time, and none of the headaches of owning your own grocery store.Report

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