Where Are All of America’s Blue-Collar Workers in 2019?

01.11.19
Ryan O'Hara/Flickr
U.S. News /11 Jan 2019
01.11.19

Where Are All of America’s Blue-Collar Workers in 2019?

What if the problem isn’t just that “the economy” as a whole is somehow underperforming, but instead, that America has become incapable of preparing its citizens to take part in it?

In 2019, experts expect the blue-collar labor market in America to be tight, at best. So what’s going on? What forces are at play here, in the most productive and economically successful country in the world? Where have all of America’s blue-collar workers gone, and what does it mean for our country and our economy in 2019 and beyond?

Which Jobs Are Affected — and Why?

Here’s a refresher on “blue-collar” jobs: These careers include anything involving construction, maintenance and repair, agriculture, assembly and manufacturing, material and freight handling and a variety of other mid- and low-pay service-based roles, including food preparation, grounds keeping, personal care, home care, and others.

In a 2018 poll, some 86 percent of blue-collar workers indicated overall job satisfaction, signifying that jobs in these sectors don’t just deliver the means to survive, but a bit of existential satisfaction, too.

And yet, for the past several years, unemployment rates for virtually every type of blue-collar worker, from managers all the way down to entry-level, low-skilled workers, have risen steadily. It’s essential to note that, over the same period, the number of people with a bachelor’s-level degree has skyrocketed. In other words, there are now more jobs available than there are people who are willing or able to fill them.

Trends Conspiring to Create a Blue-Collar Jobs Crisis in 2019

Economic experts have singled out several factors as they’ve attempted to understand the impending blue-collar jobs shortage.

The first is shifting demographics. There’s no easy way to say it, but baby boomers — a much larger generation than the next-youngest ones — are either aging out of the workforce or passing away faster than new workers can replace them. According to some estimates, as many as 10,000 boomers may retire each day, leaving behind decent-paying jobs for which there are no suitable candidates or, alternately, an abundance of “over-educated” degree-holders who look down their noses at some of the more physical vocations.

Observed and anecdotal evidence suggests the value of the bachelor’s degree is not what it once was — and also that those who earn one today are not likely to seek out employment in a blue-collar field. That, too, is leaving many viable and potentially decent-paying jobs unfilled, with many dispirited job-seekers giving up on finding a job that meets their highly specific set of credentials.

Another cohort of job seekers likely suffers under the longstanding stigma against blue-collar work, or else harbors outsized worries about some of the common and preventable sources of injury in these fields. Indeed, many of the most profitable blue-collar jobs, such as oil rig work, landscaping, and construction, put workers at higher risk of serious and long-term injuries and medical conditions due to the physical labor often involved in these types of jobs.

What Kinds of Opportunities Are Getting Left ‘On the Table’?

Between now and 2026, the construction industry alone is likely to expand its workforce by some 12 percent. The material handling industries will need an additional 44,000 machine operators over the same period. And yet, across the country, more than three-quarters of all construction companies are reporting shortages of qualified job applicants. In some states, including Washington, the rate is closer to 80 percent.

So what can companies do about it? A lot of the recommendations so far would see CEOs and shareholders battening down the hatches and making their peace with lower profits and higher wages. Companies of all kinds will need to readjust their expectations and compensation packages if they want to win over talent in a small and shrinking pool of applicants.

Automation enters the picture here not as a job-killer, but as a potential tool for some companies to wean themselves off their dependency on workers with certain skills. Automation has widely been expected to cost jobs, but it might instead become a tool whereby companies give themselves some breathing room amid an ongoing shortage of human workers. It’s a complex situation, with every variable impacting each of the others, often in unexpected ways.

The blue-collar job shortage itself has been a surprise even to some professional forecasters. But one of the hidden benefits is that those who do make their way into blue-collar roles today will probably do very well for themselves and enjoy faster wage growth than workers in other sectors of the economy.

Blue-Collar Jobs and the Economy of 2019 and Beyond

As 2019 unspools, the U.S. will have to learn to do several things simultaneously. The first is that we need to be more honest with ourselves about the real-world value of a college education vs. enrollment in a trade school. Not everybody is cut out to follow the same path through life. We’ll also have to engage in more public funding for re-training programs — like some of the proposals in the recently proposed “Green New Deal” — and incentivize companies who broaden their applicant base, to include former felons, for example.

Ultimately, employers and employees alike will have to revisit what constitutes a “rewarding career.” For many workers, the problem has been a stigma against pursuing careers that involve difficult labor or repetitive tasks. And for employers, decades of low wages that haven’t kept up with inflation have only reinforced this belief and driven the younger generations from these trades.

A country’s civic, economic and educational system must be equipped to provide gainful employment and a measure of dignity to anybody who can and wants to, contribute to the larger whole. But like every other piece of the social contract, this one needs to change with the times

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