Trading a white collar for blue

In the 'knowledge economy,' blue-collar work - the kind where you don't sit at a desk - has long been considered second best. That's changing fast.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I just finished reading Matthew B. Crawford's new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, and it has really got me thinking. I always liked working with my hands, and I spend most of my free time woodworking (building furniture and cabinets for my family and friends) and tinkering with old cars. But like lots of other people, I got a college degree because I was told it would be the ticket to a lifetime of employment security. Ha! Pretty funny, right? Having been laid off twice in three years, I'm not laughing. Meanwhile, my wife's brother, who did an apprenticeship instead of college, owns a successful business as an electrician and has been urging me to come to work for him. It would be a complete career change but, having read Crawford's thoughts on how satisfying his motorcycle-repair shop is, I'm seriously considering leaving the corporate world behind. I'd be interested to hear what you and your readers think. -- White Collar Blues

Dear WCB: No doubt about it, plenty of people have been taking a fresh look at skilled trades recently, and not only -- or even mainly -- because the recession has wiped out millions of white collar jobs. Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton, believes that in the workplace of the not-so-distant future, the main division will be, not between jobs that require a college degree and those that don't, but between work that can be outsourced to lower-cost labor markets and work that can't. "You can't hammer a nail over the Internet," he notes. Nor can you fix a car transmission, rewire a house, install solar panels, or give a patient an injection.

At the same time, technology has permeated every aspect of life to the point where formerly "low-skilled" jobs now require sophisticated training and command high pay. Now that everything in a new car is controlled electronically, for instance, a master mechanic with extensive knowledge of those complex systems can earn upwards of $100,000 a year.

Moreover, the move toward green technologies gives people with mechanical and electrical aptitude and experience a distinct edge. Heather Honea, a professor at San Diego State University, has researched the kinds of skills required to get alternative sources of energy, like wind and solar power, up and running. Her conclusion: "The transition from blue collar jobs to green collar jobs will be far easier than going from white collar to green collar."

And consider what global staffing giant Manpower found in a recent survey of employers, who were asked what job openings they had the most trouble filling, due to a lack of qualified applicants. Machinists and machine operators, manual tradespeople (electricians, for example), technicians who can fix things, and nurses topped the list. Blinder at Princeton has a point: One thing these jobs have in common is that none of them can be done from, say, India.

All of this adds up to one thing: If you're looking for job security -- and after two layoffs in three years, who can blame you? -- you could do a lot worse than to learn a trade, especially since you enjoy working with your hands as well as your brain. Anyone considering training for a technical career might want to check out a new book, Blue Collar & Proud Of It: The All-in-One Resource for Finding Freedom, Financial Success, and Security Outside the Cubicle (Health Communications, $15.95). The author, Joe Lamacchia, who has run a successful landscaping company in Newton, Mass., for 28 years, cites Bureau of Labor Statistics projections showing that the number of skilled-trades job openings created between 2004 and 2014 will top 40 million -- more than twice the number of new white-collar jobs the economy is expected to generate over the same period.

To help readers get started, Lamacchia describes more than a dozen in-demand trades, from auto technician to solar panel installer; and, even more valuable, the book includes a directory of schools and training programs in all 50 states and Canada, with complete contact information. Lamacchia also runs a web site, www.bluecollarandproudofit.com, where former cubicle dwellers who have switched to blue collar (and green collar) careers share their experiences.

Lamacchia isn't anti-college, but one of his firm beliefs is that not every good job requires a four-year degree, and not every kid needs to get one. Since he launched the site in 2003, he says, "I've heard from lots and lots of teachers who agree with me. They write things like, 'It's about time someone said this! But don't use my name.'"

Let's say you want to pursue a new career but can't afford the tuition for technical training. Help is at hand. The federal economic stimulus plan provides money for job retraining, as do many state-funded programs, like the one in Michigan that covers up to $5,000 in tuition costs per displaced worker. For a complete nationwide roundup of information on how to apply for the funds and where to go for technical schooling, see the U.S. Department of Labor's new one-stop-shopping careers web site, www.servicelocator.org.

Readers, what do you say? If you're thinking of changing careers, would you consider learning a skilled trade? Why or why not? If you're currently working in a field that required technical training instead of college, what do you like (and dislike) about it? Hiring managers, what job skills are most difficult to find now? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog! To top of page

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