Jodi Wallace

Special Contributor

I am a big fan of Public Radio. What can I say – although I have still occasionally been known to blow out my car speakers cranking up the rock and roll I grew up on, I like to be informed on what is going on in my community, my country and the world in which I live.       

On the way into work one morning I heard an interview with Mike Rowe, the former host of “Dirty Jobs,” (a staple in our home for several years, I admit). I have always loved his wit and humor, and many people are surprised at his intelligence, passion and understanding on a wide variety of subjects. (I always find it interesting that people act surprised when a regular “blue-collar-guy-next-door” is intelligent, articulate, and informed, but don’t blink twice if the same information came from a college-educated white collar person.)  

The item that really caught my attention was one I have given a lot of thought to in the last couple of years – the lack of qualified blue collar tradesman, and why. As Mike Rowe put it so eloquently, “If we wonder why there might be a shortage of plumbers, look at the idea of how plumbers are portrayed, as a 300 pound guy with a b*** crack showing. What young person would want to go into a profession that is viewed this way?” 

Several months ago in my article Mutual Respect (SRG November 2014) I discussed how odd it is to see how many people view and treat blue collar trades people nowadays. I am not exactly sure when working hard and earning an honest living with your hands became something to be looked down on. 

Sometimes it feels as if we forgot that our country was built by hardworking blue-collar labor. Our stereotypes for certain things may have been politically corrected, but I think we still have some work to do on some of the other remaining and accepted stereotypes that are still being passed around. 

One of my favorite parts of the Mike Rowe interview was when he spoke about being out with his film crew in the midst of our most recent recession. The biggest topic of conversation nationally might have been unemployment, but the thing he said that blew him away were all the “Help Wanted” signs they saw posted. 

He said at first he thought it was a bad joke. But he said the more they traveled around and spoke with people the more he realized people really were looking for qualified workers and having a tough time finding them. 

I can totally relate to this dilemma.  For 2-1/2 years I was desperate for an additional fabricator. I did all the “right” things – I tried word of mouth, posted multiple times on Craig’s List, contacted the Employment Development Department – even the Veterans Affair office in our town. And nothing.  

Not that I couldn’t find people who would have worked as “helpers” or wanted to learn, but certain positions such as fabricators and installers require experienced people. It just felt like there was no one out there with what I needed. In frustration I finally gave up. And I know from speaking with other trades I work with that I am not the only one in this predicament. Finding skilled labor is like finding that golden needle in the haystack.

The cosmos must have somehow felt sorry for me because about six months after I stopped looking, a guy randomly showed up in my shop looking for work. He had run the shop at his former employer’s and left because he didn’t feel comfortable with some of the “goings-on,” going on! Was I excited? You have absolutely no idea! And he has turned out to be a very important part of our team. But sadly, he is the exception to the rule, not the norm. 

With the current “view” that we seem to associate with “manual labor,” the important question becomes what happens when we cannot replace the skilled labor force we need? Anyone who has tried to hire for positions knows exactly what I am referring to. The general contractors, carpenters, electricians, etc. I work with on a regular basis are all saying the same thing – where do we find workers when these trades are no longer considered “desirable?” 

Not everyone wants to, or can become an engineer, an IT tech, or many of the other so-called “white collar” jobs. And yet we aren’t having a serious conversation about what other options are out there or how to fix the problem of where we will find replacement workers. 

Most of the trades people I know are in their 40s, 50s, and older. What is going to happen when those of us from the baby boom generation retire? Who will take over? My shop is a good example of what we are dealing with. 

One of my fabricators is 52 years old, the other in his forties. One of my installers is 54 years old, the other lead installer 47 years old. At some point these guys can’t be walking around carrying 200 or more pounds of stone or acrylic. Who are we training to step into their shoes?

I have occasionally starting hearing the term “vocation” again, but not in a context where training is being offered to young people who have decided that college is not the direction they want to pursue, or perhaps already have a degree and are looking for something more. 

For many of us in a certain age group, vocation schools were pretty popular and a great alternative after high school. I knew several friends who attended Vo-Tech to become mechanics or electricians. And I can definitely tell you they made good money, and rarely had problems finding work. While many of us who ended up in manufacturing or IT positions have had at least a couple of layoffs splayed across the front of our resumes.  

As a society we tend to view the “important jobs” as those requiring a college degree. And those jobs are very important. But what happens when those doctors, lawyers or bank presidents want to build a house, or a hospital, or get their car fixed? 

When is the last time you heard someone say I want to grow up to drive heavy equipment and help lay asphalt for new highways? Or my dream job is to replace the broken water mains under the streets? Or I can’t wait to grow up and build breaker panels for a new building? It just feels like our society has come to trivialize the jobs that built our country. 

All those financial people sitting in those tall buildings and enjoying the view – those buildings certainly didn’t build themselves. The mansion some CEO had an architect design and he now shows off to his colleagues – was built with pride by blue collar labor. 

Don’t get me wrong – I think every parent dreams of their child going to college. But what about the young person who isn’t interested in college?  Or someone who has been there, done that, and wants to try something new? What are we offering for alternative career choices? Welders, mechanics, electricians, fabricators  – these jobs take skill. You don’t just wake up one day, walk out the door and apply for a job as a diesel mechanic. 

My 24-year-old son is an oddity in his generation. Don’t get me wrong, he did graduate from college with a degree in Business, (and his mom kicked his backside all the way down the aisle to get him there!) But he also has something that most of his peers nowadays do not – the knowledge and ability to do things with his hands. 

Shane has been handling tools since he was young, and started helping us when he was 11 years old. He worked nights and weekends while in junior high, high school and college. From his senior year of high school through his college graduation he knew that from Thursday afternoon through Sunday night he was ours. Or more specifically, he was Dad’s helper/car pool buddy/jack-of-all-trades. When he graduated college last year he started working for us full-time. 

He may have moaned and groaned about being Dad’s travel buddy and assistant installer and there were definitely times I felt bad that he might be missing something going on with his friends, but he slowly worked his way from grunt and tool fetcher, to learning the caveats of how to correctly take templates, to being the person sent to handle templates, and in charge of many of the acrylic installs, working directly with customers, troubleshooting problems, setting up an inventory control system and ordering supplies, and fixing broken tools including sanders, and routers. 

While his friends were playing video games, Shane was learning the difference between needing a 3/4 inch, 5/8 inch or 1 inch underlayment, how to use a table saw, jig saw, and Sawzsall, how to install waste drops, attach sinks, and how to measure to ensure you are compliant with ADA requirements.

But something interesting happened along the way. Several months ago I received a call from one of the commercial contractors we work with. He awkwardly started the conversation by saying he wasn’t exactly sure how to bring up the topic, but they wanted our permission to interview Shane for an entry-level Project Management position.  

I was thrilled for him, and terrified for me as he had become an important asset to our company. Both my husband and I knew it was a good career move and an opportunity for him to grow and understand exactly how much he knew, but had no clue that he actually knew! 

He has now been there approximately three months and is about to close out his first project. There have been ups and downs along the way (welcome to commercial contracting!), but I have definitely seen the transformation. The company he now works for had no idea how good a deal they were actually getting. 

Problems with sheetrock being torn down and needing to be replaced, mudded and sanded? No problem. Scratched countertops that needed to be sanded because other trades have been slobs and inconsiderate of new-laid tops? Easy enough. Touch-up painting, setting up cameras to keep the thieves from returning, evaluating incorrect sink sizes that won’t meet ADA specifications, reviewing blueprints? Done, done and done (lucky for them that he has a “source” he can borrow tools from, as they seriously lack the “correct” tools, as Shane says!).

But Shane is most definitely the exception to the rule for his generation. As one of the company owners of Shane’s new workplace told me, if he stays in the industry and gets some experience under his belt, he will be able to write his own ticket. Why? Because finding a new and skilled labor force is going to become a serious concern for many industries in the very near future. 

  The time to start having a discussion about this is before we hit crisis mode – not once we are in the midst of it.

Jodi Wallace is co-owner of Monarch Solid Surface Designs in San Jose, California. Contact her at  .