Blue-Collar Blues

I graduated from college in my mid-20s after a series of interesting jobs: driving a truck for UPS; working at the Todd-Hoboken Shipyards in Jersey stripping WW II Navy destroyers (destined to be filled with wheat and floated along the Upper Hudson as part of the mothball fleet); and serving in the U.S. Army infantry during the Vietnam War. I also unloaded boxcars of canned goods and hawked beer at the old Yankee Stadium, shoveled streets and drove a cab from late afternoon till early morning whenever I needed an extra buck.  

When I was young, these types of jobs were plentiful and paid well. But times have drastically changed and so has the availability of these so-called, “men’s jobs.” It’s not a great time to be a man who is mostly dependent on his brawn for economic survival. The disappearance of blue-collar jobs has been going on for quite a while and can’t simply be blamed on heavy industry and factory jobs moving to Mexico or China, as Trump and his Republican cronies would have us believe. The primary culprit for the dramatic change in America’s economy is the steady advancement of automation—the mechanization of industry—brought on by the rapid advancement of computerized technology.  

When I graduated City College, I followed my wife’s lead and became a teacher.  Back then, the vast majority of teachers were women or men attempting to avoid the draft.  I landed a position working with tough, special needs kids in the inner city and, I’m sure, this bolstered my ego.  I was doing “man’s work.”  Once in the “system,” I worked my way up the ladder to become a supervisor and then a school principal, and eventually the CEO of a social service agency serving troubled kids.  Again, what I considered “manly roles.”  

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But that was then, and the opportunities available for the “blue-collar man” today have dramatically changed. Today, with a few exceptions, the fastest-growing jobs are those in fields that once would have been considered primarily women’s work: office administration, technology assistants, nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, home healthcare, bookkeepers, statisticians, physician’s assistants, etc.  Other fast-growing fields—many considered, at one time, the exclusive domain of men—are now being breached by women in growing numbers: commercial drivers, construction trades, web developers and financial advisors.

Much of men’s resistance to pink-collar jobs— especially in this country—appears to be tied to our cultural identity of what masculinity represents. Women are assumed to be empathetic and caring; men are supposed to be strong, tough and able to support a family.

“Traditional masculinity is standing in the way of working-class men’s employment and I think it’s a problem,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins and author of “Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America.”

“We have a cultural lag where our views of masculinity have not caught up to the change in the job market,” Cherlin said. “When men take these so-called pink-collar jobs, they have more job security and wage growth than in blue-collar work, but are paid less and feel stigmatized.”

Considering the reality of the American blue-collar male in today’s rough and tumble economy, Trump’s appeal to men who feel threatened is certainly no surprise.  It’s not just Trump’s promises to bring back physically demanding jobs, but also his machismo and his defiance in the face of societal change.

Many unemployed men who depend on manual labor say they can’t take the time and make the effort to train for a new career because they have bills to pay. And they say they chose their original careers because they wanted to build things with their hands, not take care of people.  But American employers have been insisting for years that they have a hard time finding workers to fill many skilled blue-collar jobs. A 2015 report from the Manufacturing Institute found that seven in 10 manufacturing executives said they faced shortages of workers with adequate tech skills.

“The jobs being created are very different from those jobs being eliminated,” said David Autor, an economist at M.I.T. “I’m not worried about whether there will be jobs. I’m very worried about whether there will be jobs for low-educated adults, especially the males, who seem very reluctant to take the new jobs.”

And improving skills is costly. Major budget cuts to support huge tax breaks for the wealthy, pushed by this Republican Congress, will drastically cut programs focused on vocational training and job re-education. And to the greatest extent, the biggest losers will be the blue-collar men who voted for Trump, ostensibly seeking the promise of jobs.  


The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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