THE BLOG

No, Blue Collar and Middle-Skill Careers Aren't Second Rate

02/20/2015 11:32 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

Plumber. Welder. Electrician. Construction manager. To many people, these careers sound dumb, dirty, and dangerous. They sound like careers for people who set their goals too low. They sound like careers for people who don't make a difference in the world.

How wrong these views are!

For almost 30 years, American education largely ignored the value of blue collar careers. As the economy was transformed by the digital revolution and globalization, K-12 and higher education put extra emphasis on teaching students skills that would allow them to compete in the global economy. But as a result, we neglected to train enough people who would construct elevators, weld pipelines, fix power lines, keep an eye on nuclear safety, and wire up commercial buildings for light and power. As older workers in these fields get set to retire in the next few years, there are millions of projected job opportunities for millennials in blue collar fields. One expert has forecasted 600,000 new jobs for electricians alone.

But what makes blue collar careers one of the best value propositions in all of higher education is how much cheaper the training is over a four-year degree. A girl featured in this NPR story decided to choose vocational training at a community college (only $1200 per semester) over a four-year college ($40,000 per year). She didn't want the huge debt that came with a four-year degree, and instead decided to study at a community college that partners with her employer, which plans to pay her $58,000 per year at the time of graduation. And she isn't just learning about how to work for a utilities company. According to the article, she's also studying "English, math, a computer science course and even a psychology group dynamics class. Then there are the classes directly related to power utility work: DC theory, AC theory, physics, engineering and business etiquette." Critics often say that a four-year degree provides a more "well-rounded" education. But this course of study actually looks more comprehensive than what you might study at a four-year college!

People think blue collar work is for people with no brainpower. But many blue collar areas are increasing on people who have high-tech skills. Take manufacturing, for instance. Disappearing are the days when a worker stood on his feet for 8 hours a day and put the same screw into the same hole, day after day. Now, manufacturers are training their people to use technology like carbon fibers, robotic arms and lasers to make very precise parts for sophisticated businesses like aerospace and medical device manufacturers. Manufacturers are more dependent than ever on people with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) training, and 15 of the 20 fastest growing jobs in the next decade will be STEM-related. This girl will be 20 years old when she finishes her community college degree, which she is completing as she does a manufacturing apprenticeship with the powerhouse German tech company Siemens. She is already earning $34,000 per year just for undergoing training, and feels confident that Siemens, having invested so much in her already, will be a secure employment opportunity, with lots opportunity to travel around the world for the company.

Lastly, blue collar skills can often be highly personally rewarding. People depend on their lights to come on, their toilet to flush, and their roads to be free of potholes. And there is there great satisfaction of working with your hands to solve complex mental and physical challenges.

Much of this blue collar training is best obtained at the community college level. Many community colleges are already more equipped to teach their students hard skills that are immediately applicable to real-life work situations. The completion time for degrees is much quicker, and the costs lower. If President Obama's plan for free community college ever becomes a reality, there is a great chance that many more students than ever before will be able to gain access to these programs. At my company Viridis Learning, we're already partnering with community colleges to help people get the middle skills they need to thrive in the workplace.

In 2015 and beyond, blue collar jobs are abundant and lucrative. Its time to end the myth that blue-collar America is second-best America.