Six Degrees to Skilled Labor

06/02/2015 06:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

Through technology, the world has evolved to the point where we have many modern conveniences available to us, literally right at our fingertips. Our use of technology connects us to each other, but can also leave us disconnected. As we all rely more on computers and technology to perform more of our daily operations and tasks, it is easy to believe that our reliance on skilled workers has decreased. We come to believe that we are self-sufficient, but that notion is far from the truth. All of us count on those who work in technical industries and skilled trades all day every day.

2015-06-01-1433182324-2925337-16635797753_5a07ea85b6_m.jpgThe smart phone, laptop computer or tablet we all can't seem to live without? They all need power, and that means they all need electricity. And while we take for granted that we can always charge our devices at the nearest wall outlet, there are thousands of people who work around the clock making sure there is a steady flow of electricity to our homes and places of work.

In fact, every facet of our lives has been touched in some way by someone who has the skills and training in what some consider blue collar or manual labor professions. Let's just think about your smart phone for a moment. At the point of sale, you likely encountered a knowledgeable sales representative who assisted you with your selection and final purchase. What special training did this person have? When you opened the box and took out your phone for the first time, did you stop to think about the people who packaged it or shipped it? When you turned it on and began to inspect the default programming, did you give any thought to the individuals who wrote or loaded that programming? What special skills did they possess? Did you consider the engineering that went into the phone itself? After all, the phone didn't design itself; someone designed and manufactured it. Someone assembled all the necessary components, and someone supplied the raw materials. It was mass produced in an assembly process that used automated manufacturing systems that were customized for your specific phone. What kind of skilled trades person did it take to operate that assembly equipment and to repair it when it malfunctioned?

You see, there are never more than six degrees of separation between those of us who are end users and the highly skilled workers who make our modern conveniences possible.

According to a recent national study of workers by occupational category, blue collar workers -- those who identify themselves as laborers, skilled trade workers, service workers and technicians and repair workers -- make up more than 50 percent of the workforce in all 50 states. But even though skilled labor plays such a large and vital role in our economy, and in our lives, many of these professions and those who choose to work in them continue to be marginalized.

In his book, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, author and UCLA research professor Dr. Mike Rose studied why those in service and skilled labor professions are looked at as unintelligent and how those perceptions are wrong. "I want to demonstrate the considerable cognitive demands of blue collar and service work and what it takes to do such work," Rose said in an interview with the Washington Post in 2014. "Because of cultural and class biases, the dynamics of occupational status, and our current understandable enchantment with high technology, we as a society tend to underestimate and undervalue the smarts involved in such work."

Rose pointed out that those in the service industry like chefs and servers have to prioritize a number of demands from customers, management and the kitchen. Plumbers have to diagnose a problem just by feeling the pipes they can't see inside a wall. Carpenters need to know about mathematics to measure and build. Not to mention many people in trade vocations who work for themselves have to be familiar with economics and financial markets.

The idea that we can be separated into categories by our career paths into white collar and blue collar; professional and vocational; lofty and lowly; is almost absurd. In order for our economy and our communities to function and thrive, we need everyone.

We need people who run numbers and people who run water and sewer lines. We need people who can create computer programs and people who create and protect the network infrastructure for those programs. We need visionaries and problem solvers.

It takes millions of men and women braving weather and injury to ensure our lights work, our water runs, our homes have heat and our cars get us from here to there. It's important that those who work primarily behind a desk in temperature-controlled comfort, safe from the elements take time to acknowledge and appreciate the work of those in the skilled trades. We are more interconnected than we realize.

Photo credit: Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon