Fred Cooper, a welder since 1972, earned $4,000 a week before recently retiring. Now the 65-year-old says his former employer is urging him to come back to work. His skills are desperately needed because, Cooper says, younger generations focusing on college degrees are not interested in manual labor. Yet, the allure of higher pay tied to white-collar jobs is often misleading; a civil engineer’s mid-career average salary of $63,457 annually is actually a bit lower than the annual $68,400 earned by an elevator installer.1
If money isn’t the issue, perhaps it’s position that matters. Is it possible that we taught an entire generation of people that everyone gets to be the boss? How exactly does that work? We’ve almost convinced ourselves that in the future we won’t have to physically do anything. Here’s a rude awakening: Apparently the future is not here yet! Essential industries such as construction and agriculture are desperate for people who will use their hands and muscles to sustain the organization’s success. Leaders in manufacturing and construction sectors have told me they’re bidding jobs that they are not sure they have the labor to complete.
Why the shortfall?
Millennials in large numbers have eschewed these blue-collar fields to pursue four-year degrees and prestigious careers. Even so, with women making up almost 60 percent of college enrollment, one might still expect an abundant supply of young men to be entering skilled-labor trades that provide this country’s infrastructure. But they are not, so the skills gap widens as experienced workers retire and a replacement force is in short supply. This is possibly the biggest problem many organizations will face in the next 10 years. Just last year, the American Welding Society projected a need for 300,000 welders and welding instructors across manufacturing industries by 2020.2 This shortage of workers spells trouble for manufacturers, construction firms, and other trades in need of skilled labor. What is it about these jobs specifically that has young people working across the street at the mall for a quarter of the money? And what can we do about it?
There are three solutions to consider:
1. Blue-collar jobs are viewed as a dead end.
Many people believe that the skills and experience you get from working with your hands won’t forward your life. The truth is that many successful people say it was the labor job that taught them how to be successful. Sure, hard work builds character; but there’s more to it than that. The boss who used a wrench in the field knows how things really work and more readily earns the respect of the masses.
Solution: Show how the job has transferable skills they can take elsewhere and how it’s the best possible foundation for success.
2. We told 92 million millennials they were unique and special
We raised millennials to believe they are special, but we seem as a whole to have forgotten to tell them what that means. Being special is about the individual as a person, not the details of their job or what they deserve. I know people in some high positions who are anything but special. And I knew a man who worked with his hands his entire life – his last 20 years as a handyman. When he died at 83, twelve hundred people attended his funeral. He was as special as they come, and the entire community viewed him that way.
Solution: Elevate the culture around your labor force as the key component to success. Whether you are in for the duration or on your way up to leadership, make a big deal out of the importance of these jobs. Create levels from apprentice to expert. “Implementation team” sounds better than “labor force.”
3. Hard work is dangerous
The child protection movement has created more fear than safety. I speak at safety conventions every month; I recognize safety as foundational. We all have the right to a safe environment. And, truth be told, dead employees are rarely productive. But we have gone from young people seeking adventure to being wrestled to the ground for being in possession of peanuts at an elementary school!
Solution: Brand safety into your organization. Make it part of the job. Reward people for not having accidents. Make it part of your recruitment process.
Even with all these solutions being applied, can we really move into the future with a generation that was taught that these jobs have no future? It’s time to be honest with ourselves, to admit that we may have made a mistake. In our effort to provide a better opportunity for everyone, we may have created a mindset that ultimately will not help anyone. Perhaps we should take the effort and creativity we use on technology and point it toward giving these jobs the respect they need to attract those we cannot live without. Keep in mind that upper levels of administration and management exist only if we can do the labor well enough to afford them. That leads to the reality that a CEO is a bit more expendable than a 20-year-old with a hammer!
About Garrison Wynn
With talents that established him as a Fortune 500 leader and professional stand-up comedian, Garrison Wynn, CSP, fuses comic timing and research to deliver motivational business expertise. For 20 years, he has given keynote presentations to clients (such as American Express, Wells Fargo, Oracle and NASA) at corporate and association events. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller The Real Truth about Success, the Amazon #1 bestseller The Cowbell Principle, has been a weekly contributor to the Washington Post and featured Forbes and Inc. Magazines.
In his teens he debuted the world’s first video gaming system (Odyssey) with baseball legend Hank Aaron and as a young man spent 6 years touring comedy clubs with the top names in the business. He went on to become the youngest department head in a Fortune 500 company’s history where he researched and designed processes for 38 company locations nationwide and developed & marketed products still being sold in 30 countries.