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Welcome to the red-hot blue-collar job boom

Juliana Kaplan   

Welcome to the red-hot blue-collar job boom

Alyssa DeOliveira followed a well-worn path: go to college, get a degree, find a white-collar job. Her mother always told her she'd grow up to be a doctor, lawyer, or politician, so she tried nursing and accounting before settling on criminal justice, landing a job at a law firm. For a little over a year she arrived every morning at about 8. She listened to voicemails and checked emails. If she was lucky, she left at 5. But she yearned to work with people. Nearly three years ago, she started looking for something less tedious that didn't happen almost entirely in front of a computer screen.

Today, should you find yourself in Boston riding the T's green line, DeOliveira might be your conductor. Sometimes she's at work at 4 a.m.; other times she's there until 1 a.m. Some days she drives the up-front train — her favorite model has a foot brake, so it's almost like driving a big car — and other days she drives broken trains into the yard for repairs. One thing is consistent: She loves her job. And benefits-wise, her job loves her.

"I'm making almost double what I was making at the office job," she said. "My office job didn't give me a 401(k), but with the T, I have the pension, I have healthcare."

DeOliveira is part of an ascendant shift: Blue-collar work — officially defined as jobs that handle or move material goods, and colloquially thought of as jobs that don't require sitting in front of a screen — has once again assumed a competitive position within the American labor market. Demand is high, opportunities abound, and companies like Walmart and UPS offer six-figure salaries and lucrative benefits. In White-Collar World, meanwhile, campuses have cheaper snacks, remote work is a career trap, layoffs loom, and AI robots circle like vultures.

DeOliveira said that outside Boston, where she grew up, the thinking was if you do blue-collar work, "you're not as smart as someone who went to college, you're not as dedicated." Now, she told me, blue-collar work is an oasis in the fake-email-job desert, with a newfound social cachet. "For my family, they look at it differently now," she said. "I tell my cousins that are still in school, look into the trades if you don't know what you want to do."

Across America, it's getting hot under the blue collar.

Chris Collins has been a plumber for two decades. After finishing high school, he moved to eastern Tennessee in search of pretty much any type of work. But with no college degree and visible tattoos dotting his arms, he found that prospective employers sidelined him. Then he heard about a plumber looking for help. He showed up the next morning, and the rest is pipe-fixing history: He got trained, got licensed, and, in 2008, struck out on his own. Business, he said, never skipped a beat, even when the market crashed.

"I remember telling my parents that I was getting into the trades, and they were just like: 'This is awful. Go to college, go to college, be an IT guy or a doctor,'" Collins told me. He believes they wanted more for him. But as they watched his career take off, they came to understand that plumbing did offer more.

If Instagram incentivized a still-life aesthetic pleasure neatly tucked into a square frame, TikTok incentivized action.

Collins traced the shift around blue-collar work back to 2018 or 2019, when social media became a way for people to peek behind the trades curtain. As Steven Kurutz wrote for The New York Times, early influencers focused on curating the most aesthetically pleasing lives possible. Then people began to wonder who crafted that pretty finery. Who catches the lobster that ends up on that hand-painted porcelain platter? Who builds that cavernous house packed with Eames chairs? As the wild popularity of "day in the life" vignettes made clear, people loved what that peek afforded. If Instagram incentivized a still-life aesthetic pleasure neatly tucked into a square frame, TikTok incentivized action — and the people who spend their lives moving or building things were rewarded with views.

At the same time, millennials and younger workers wrestled with a snowballing amount of student-loan debt for degrees that didn't seem worth the price tag. The median wage for recent college graduates with a bachelor's degree actually fell to $52,210 in 2017 from $54,593 in 2016 — and it stayed below that 2016 level through 2019. (It has since zigzagged.) Surveys have indicated that Gen Zers view college degrees with even more suspicion than millennials, which may suggest a long tail for the blue-collar boom.

These years were crucial for other reasons, too. Bernie Sanders, long a champion of working people, leapt from Congress to the national presidential stage. As blue-collar companies struggled to staff up, they turned toward raising wages. Then came the pandemic — and a radical shift in how many Americans viewed work. White-collar workers saw the sun set on the zero-interest-rate phenomenon and watched how easily their roles could disappear. Many blue-collar workers, meanwhile, were deemed "essential." They were put in harm's way, often at the hands of bosses who didn't care about their health. Suddenly there was a consensus that they deserved to be paid more — or at the very least, respected. In a survey conducted in late 2021, 67% of blue-collar workers said they believed the pandemic changed how people viewed their jobs, and 75% of white-collar workers agreed. And while 62% of blue-collar workers said they believed that society generally looked down on them, 60% indicated they believed that having a blue-collar job was respected more than it was 10 years ago.

While blue-collar work still tends to pay less than white-collar professions, ADP found that last year new hires in the construction industry had a median salary of $48,089, while new hires in professional services made a median salary of $39,520. And in March, construction and mining wages were up 6.3% year over year — well above overall wage growth of 5.2% in the same period.

Between 1979 and 2019 "there was pretty much zero growth in terms of real wages for this group," said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. But over the past four years she's found that wages have increased for low-wage workers, and it's not a coincidence. It was partly a result of pandemic-era economic policy that stood in contrast to the more austere measures taken during the Great Recession. The money pouring into unemployment benefits and Americans' wallets — alongside protections like checks for parents and eviction moratoriums — meant that lower earners had not only a cushion, but more opportunities to job hop. Those increases for the bottom 10% were beating out inflation and meaningfully improving people's living standards, Gould said.

Now, the economy is adding blue-collar jobs at a rapid clip. Since April 2020, industries like construction, manufacturing, and transportation and warehousing have added 4.5 million jobs, compared with 4.1 million jobs in the professional services and information sectors, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The trend is pointing upward: In their most recent employment accounting, blue-collar sectors well outpaced white-collar sectors.

"I used to always tell friends who need a job — I'm like, hey, why don't you work at Walmart?" Frankie Giambrone, a Walmart manager outside New York City, told me. "And they're like, no, no, no." But over the past two years, he said, their tones have changed. "Now I have the same people that are like, hey, can you get me a job there?" he said. Giambrone started working as a cashier at 15, making $8.25 an hour. Today he makes six figures and has a robust 401(k) and stock options. The company — which has had its own checkered history with its workers — even paid for him to get his bachelor's degree in business.

"I never thought Walmart to be my career," he said, "but now that I'm in this position, there's nowhere else I would want to be."

It also doesn't hurt that the country has a vocally pro-union president. "Prior to President Biden coming to office, there had been several decades in which there was a very strong emphasis on getting a four-year degree as the pathway to a middle class," Lael Brainard, the director of the National Economic Council, told me. "That's not how the president thinks."

Take Scott Gove, 57, who has worked for UPS for 30 years. He believes that the public has been slowly piecing together that union jobs — UPS workers are represented by the Teamsters Union — can provide a solidly middle-class life. "You take a drive through a UPS location and just look at the parking lot of what's parked there," he said. "That'll tell you the type of financial stability that the union has given its members."

Between the job stability and the ability to work with your hands, blue-collar work is sexy. Look no further than the extremely popular TikToks about bagging a blue-collar boyfriend or girlfriend. Or the people trying to find their next date on the apps.

"In February there was a 116% increase in mentions of blue-collared jobs on OkCupid profiles compared to the same month last year," Michael Kaye, the director of brand marketing and communications at OkCupid, told me. "The bottom line is an honest living is hot."

My wife will tell you the reason she married me was for my healthcare benefits.

Still, Giambrone said that when he tells prospective matches on dating sites that he works at Walmart, they'll often unmatch or ghost him — a sharp contrast to how his friends and relatives see his work. But he knows that down the line he'll find his person.

"We make good money. I'm stable," he said. "I love the fact that ultimately I work and I don't have to worry about a bed. I don't have to worry about living somewhere. I don't have to worry about food. I am comfortable. I live by myself. I have my two cats, and I'm happy."

Gove, the UPS driver, said there's a long-running family joke about his relationship. "My wife will tell you the reason she married me was for my healthcare benefits."

Collins, the plumber, said that when he started out, clients tended to be dismissive when he showed up. Now he's met with gratitude, especially as it becomes more difficult to find workers in short supply. When Alyssa DeOliveira changed careers, she was met with incredulity from some friends: Are you sure you want to drive a train? Are you scared? But her job expanded her friend group. "I have friends who are 60," she said. "It's all over the place. There's people from every ethnic background, all ages, any gender, any sexuality. My friends can fit any kind of group there is out there." That's on top of her old friends who have stuck by her during the career transition.

There is a tendency — particularly among white-collar workers — to look at blue-collar work through rose-colored glasses, to romanticize the hard work and skills it requires. The labor market hasn't completely reversed course; blue-collar jobs may be booming, but a bachelor's degree is still often a prerequisite for roles with high pay and numerous benefits. And even with prominent labor actions like those from United Auto Workers members and Teamsters, union membership in the US is at a record low.

"The reality is this is a slow-moving tide, and it has been the case for a very long time that there's been stigma and a general sense that these kinds of industries and this kind of work is somehow less than," Sam Pillar, the CEO of Jobber, a software company that services small blue-collar businesses, told me. "Obviously we think that's total horseshit."

Jeff Goldalian, an electrician who owns two brick-and-mortar stores and runs a YouTube channel that teaches people how to become electrical contractors, believes that just posting about the merits of blue-collar jobs might elide the hard work required to make it sustainable.

"There's a dark side to the trades if you don't know it," he told me. "As an electrician, if you don't know how to get proper training, where to get training or licensing, you're setting yourself up for failure."

Blue-collar work is, at the end of the day, work. There are bad bosses, difficult coworkers, and shareholders who value their profits over the workers generating them. Americans increasingly want more from their work, but they don't have the leverage to truly change their conditions — yet. The appeal of blue-collar work might lie in the fact that, to some extent, it satisfies the conditions economists say are required for worker power: Employers need this work, it's not easy to replace, and many of these jobs have the backing of a union. All those things, though precarious, are now more visible.

Juliana Kaplan is a senior labor and inequality reporter on Insider's economy team.

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