Friday, February 22, 2013

Blue Collar Careers Aren't as Easy or Available as Some Assume

I recently had to replace our range, as the old one started to produce error messages and the "cheap" repair didn't resolve the problem. Due to the fact that the original owner of this house picked a downdraft, slide-in range, I went with the most recent model of the same range. My hope was that the new range could be installed in the same manner as the old - the ventilation unit itself that sits below the range hasn't been changed. Alas... the new range was wider than the old range (and we have granite countertops) and the amount of clearance beneath the range has been reduced. So... the vent has to be reconstructed to allow for a slightly different placement of the fan and to allow the power cord to clear the vent duct.

I initially called around to try to find a handyman to cut the granite about 1/2 inch so that the oven would slide into the opening. Of the ten or so contractors I called, less than half called back and only one was willing to do (or should I say, subcontract) the work. He didn't want to send the granite subcontractor along unless he came along and, although the granite contractor was willing to charge a $200 flat fee (I expect that was a marked up rate) he wanted to accompany the granite contractor and charge a fee for the trip out and an additional hourly fee. It became pretty clear during our conversation that it was a package deal - he was not going to send the granite guy out unless he got to tag along, and that his fees for supervising were apt to meet or exceed the fees of the guy doing the work.

I took care of the cut myself - I got a dry cut diamond blade for my circular saw, put on appropriate eye, ear and hand protection and a mask, and kicked up a lot of dust. If you're going to try this at home, don't. Or if you do, I suggest using a grinder with a 4" blade instead of a circular saw, for better control. Or maybe you'll be able to rent or borrow a wet saw. The biggest problem I faced was that the guide for the saw sat over the open space, so I had to keep the saw straight and even by holding it that way rather than simply resting the bottom of the saw on the countertop. A grinder would have allowed for greater visibility of the marked line, would have been easier to control (i.e. it's a lot lighter), and likely would have made for a cleaner cut. On the whole, I'll say "not bad for a first job", but not work I'm going to be showing off to my friends. Not that I would have pulled out the range to show off the cut had it turned out better, but you know what I mean. ;-)

I got the range installed and close to level without replacing the vent pipe, but the other day I decided to complete the job. So I pulled out the range, removed the fan, and then removed an aluminum plate the original installer had placed on the wall around the hole for the vent. What did I find? Basically, the original installer had taken a hammer and knocked away the drywall, initially opening the wall in front of a wall stud and drain pipe, and then opening up a large hole to the right of that opening where the vent was installed through the wall. He had pulled all of the insulation out of that space, and cut/hammered a somewhat irregular hole through the wood and brick to the outside. He then used a dryer vent on the outside of the house instead of a proper vent cover for the range. The only thing he did to "seal" his work was to install a caulk line around the dryer vent - which is a good thing, given that he only sank two screws out of the four that were supposed to hold the cover in place. Well, that explains the drafts we would sometimes feel coming out from under the range....

And then I came across this editorial, arguing that "we" dismiss blue collar professions, but that blue collar work can potentially provide better remuneration than a college degree. Let me state up front that I agree with the overall principle - that if you're a student who has significant aptitude and interest in learning a skilled trade, it's perfectly appropriate to consider a trade instead of college - or to not give college a second thought. But at the same time, the conceit of essays such as this tends to be that college is hard but that anybody can learn and perform a skilled trade. So first and foremost, it's important to note that a lot of people in the skilled trades have associates degrees and bachelor's degrees, or have completed training or certification programs. Many skilled trades are physically demanding, and some are quite dangerous. Also, particularly at the laborer level, there's a lot of competition for jobs, sometimes from people who are willing to work for less than minimum wage.

For all I know, the guy who "installed" the vent for my range was paid less than minimum wage, cash under the table. Or perhaps he was paid a hefty installation fee, and chose to shave a couple of hours off of the job by not finishing the job properly. Or perhaps he was paid a substantial hourly wage and took a long lunch. I have no way of knowing. But I will guarantee that the homeowner paid a premium price for the "work". Expanding the pool of available laborers is not a recipe for driving up both quality and wages. It seems more likely to drive wages down without actually creating new job opportunities. You know... like the situation the author is describing for college graduates.

And the math....
At a time when unemployment is at an all-time high and college tuition continues to climb, the old formula no longer upholds. Students emerge with their hard-earned degrees and the college loans to show for it, but for what returns? The majority do not land a six-figure banking job straight out of school. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages for recent college graduates have not grown over the last decade, and actually dropped from 2007-11. In 2011, that average was just $16.81 per hour, a figure that barely makes a dent into student debt. The average wage for high school graduates is $9.45 per hour, a figure not much lower than that of a newly-minted university graduate, especially after you factor in tuition costs as well as the four years of being out of the workforce.
First, there was never an era in which the majority of college graduates would "land a six-figure banking job straight out of school". Second, $16.81 per hour is roughly $33,620 per year, and $9.45 is roughly $18,900 per year - and the college graduate likely also gets benefits such as paid vacation and health insurance. $9.45 is roughly 59% of $16.81. The author may not see the difference between those two figures as significant, but... I do.
Blue-collar professionals like electricians are enjoying 23% job growth this decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They earn on average $52,910 a year, almost $10 more per hour than recent college grads, and the top 10% earn at least $82,680. Welding, light truck driving and plumbing are just some of the blue-collar fields with similar earning potential, and the vocational training required is a fraction of the cost of a college degree.
First, the fact that the average career electrician makes 10% more than a newly minted college graduate does not make for a strong case that the college graduate was foolish to pursue the degree. Also, you need to consider that union electricians earn considerably more than non-union electricians, roughly $14,000 per year more, and we know which way that trend is going. Further, work as an electrician is physically demanding work. And let's just say, the top 10% of wage earners among college graduates earn a lot more than $82,680. On the whole, plumbers earn a bit less than electricians - and let's not forget that the category includes pipefitters and steamfitters. (Talk to some of those guys about their work-related injuries.) Light truck driving pays roughly $13 per hour, without much of a career path. The "master welders make lots of money" argument isn't particularly new, never mind that a master welder has to work many years to reach that level and will have considerable knowledge of metallurgy, and never mind that you're dealing with high temperatures and molten metal, potentially toxic fumes, potentially explosive materials, and are sometimes performing that work in dangerous locations or cramped spaces. It's "blue collar" so "anybody can do it", right?
If financial freedom is your ultimate endgame, then going into business for yourself can increase earnings exponentially, a message Rich Dad, Poor Dad has been peddling since the beginning of this millennium.
In other words, the author thinks its easy to start and market a business in the skilled trades, based upon the facile analysis of a guy who is really good at hawking books? Hey - the author of the editorial is a freelance writer. How's that exponential increase in earnings coming along?
But do these blue-collar jobs lead to fulfillment? It is certainly an argument I'm sympathetic to. We are told to do what we love; the money will assuredly follow.
I suspect that the author dropped a word or two, and intended to argue that she's concerned that blue collar jobs aren't fulfilling. Well, that's going to depend on the job and the individual performing the job. Also, there are plenty of white collar jobs that are nothing but a grind. If work could be presumed to be fulfilling, they would probably call it something else. Also, I'm not sure who is saying "Do what you love and the money will assuredly follow," but somebody needs to smack them upside the head with reality.

The author concludes,
In this tight job market, we cannot afford to ignore the reality that a college degree is becoming a luxury: one that no longer translates directly to success. It is time we shed our stigmas towards "menial" workers. The irony is that their salaries – and accompanying lifestyles – are anything but.
I'm not aware of any era in which a college degree has automatically translated into financial success, which appears to be the type of success the author is focused upon. Certainly there have been times in the past when college graduates had friendlier job markets and more predictable career paths. Yes, with the cost of college education and the changes of opportunity for college graduates, college (particularly at the tuition rates of private colleges) is increasingly a luxury. Those trends should neither be ignored or diminished, and somebody thinking about college truly should consider, "What else might I do with that time and money that could result in an acceptable career and income?" An approach that is far from novel? Get a job and work while completing your education, borrowing as little money as you possibly can on your path to a degree. If you click with your job, you may even find that you don't need the degree - and if you don't, you are preparing for a future in which you have better options - and work experience.

Technically speaking, we wouldn't shed our... let's say prejudices... against blue collar workers. Yes, some people do look down on blue collar work. I recall a conversation during law school when a classmate, who was moonlighting as a janitor, was instructed by another student that people shouldn't have to do "demeaning" work like being a janitor. (Janitors aren't all that important, you know, because floors and toilets can learn how to clean themselves.) Yes, let's respect that people who work hard for a living deserve respect for their effort, no matter what their job. To me, part of that is recognizing that some of the jobs that fall into the category of "blue collar" require a level of knowledge and sophistication that can meet or exceed that of a lot of jobs that require college degrees, while also requiring significant physical effort and presenting significant risk of injury. Yes, pretty much anybody could have pounded that hole in my kitchen wall, and hidden his lousy workmanship rather than completing the job properly, but that's not the ideal.

As for the conclusion that "[blue collar] salaries – and accompanying lifestyles – are anything but".... I suspect the author means to suggest that they're not insubstantial, as opposed to not menial. Yes, you can make a decent income in certain skilled trades, but those jobs are not immune to recessions, nor are they immune to anti-union efforts. I know a lot of college graduates, and a lot of people in the skilled trades. The former group has weathered the "great recession" without much visible impact. It's harder to find a job if you're unemployed, it's harder to find a new job if you want to change jobs, but on the whole they have kept their jobs and wages. The skilled tradespeople on the other hand... a builder who had to reinvent his business, bringing in significantly lower profits, when the new housing market collapsed in his area. A finish carpenter whose business collapsed, and who ended up losing his home to foreclosure (and he does really good work. A painting, tiling and drywalling team that can't earn a living wage, because they are consistently underbid for work by people who barely know how to hold a paintbrush. They would have done an immaculate job installing that vent, were they around at the time, but... it's not only private customers who want to pay the lowest bid. Try starting and maintaining a business in that environment.

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