Banishing Our Nation’s Blind Spot About Blue-Collar Economic Potential
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the nation’s July Jobs Report on August 7, and despite the recession and Covid-19 crisis leaving millions unemployed, a quiet revolution is underway. An ongoing blue-collar expansion continues as business leaders, entrepreneurs and job seekers find growth in this emerging sector. This revolution is what blue-collar entrepreneur Ken Rusk calls the “blue-collar boom.”
According to the Center for Economic Policy & Research (CEPR)’s Blue Collar Job Tracker, employment in construction, manufacturing, and mining and logging increased by 669,000 or 3.58 % in May. The construction sector gained 464,000 jobs in May, a 7.05 % increase, albeit largely a recovery from April’s losses.
To learn more about the blue-collar boom and the economic potential it represents, I caught up with Rusk, the author of the new book Blue-Collar Cash: Love Your Work, Secure Your Future, and Find Happiness for Life. Founder of Toledo, OH-based Rusk Industries, Rusk is a self-made millionaire.
He skipped college and started out digging ditches, then worked his way up to buying the business and becoming a successful entrepreneur. Passionate about helping other people achieve their dreams regardless of their educational background or past experience, Rusk has coached hundreds of people without college degrees.
I was excited to catch up with Rusk to tackle the myth that career success requires a college degree (and college debt). Rusk explores how Americans still have a blind spot for the nation’s talent gap and sustained blue-collar growth—a viewed shared by many others including Mike Rowe, dubbed “The Dirtiest Man on TV”—and Rusk contends that despite significant overall job losses, blue-collar workers remain in greater demand than their white-collar counterparts, earning up to six-figure salaries without a college degree or the debt that follows it.
Below Rusk shares about this blue-collar boom and the opportunities it provides for workers everywhere:
Kathy Caprino: Ken, in your new book Blue-Collar Cash, you talk all about a new “blue-collar boom.” Can you share more about this and what it means for professionals today?
Ken Rusk: Long before the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread recession, blue-collar fields have enjoyed a resurgence due to high demand for trained professionals to replace a generation of retiring trades professionals, from plumbers and construction workers, to carpenters and welders, and anyone skilled or willing to work with their hands. And most people are surprised to learn the earning potential for these professions.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources detail a range of occupations and median annual salaries, many in the six-figures, such as:
Construction Manager: $93,370 (top earners: $159,560)
Transportation, Storage, and Distribution Managers: $92,460 (top earners: $156,710)
Wind Turbine Service Technician: a “green-collar” job where experienced top earners often exceed $104,000
Kathy Caprino: With today’s blue-collar boom, why should people without college degrees have more reason than ever to be optimistic about their future and proud to be in blue-collar work?
Ken Rusk: Despite the serious economic challenges facing us today, and their profound impact on the nation’s outlook, a perfect storm of positive influences now casts widespread optimism across blue-collar industries. This powerful sector of our economy now thrives, with high consumer confidence, huge demand for its services, full employment (with high disposable income) and the highest personal satisfaction numbers in generations. Combined with a serious labor shortage, there has never been a better time to be in the blue-collar world.
Caprino: What did it take for you to end up a millionaire after starting your career as a ditch digger?
Rusk: I could easily answer this question with expected traits: character, persistence and resilience. Though the answer goes much deeper than that, and something I wish educators would teach our youth as they prepare to enter the world.
I created a proactive life plan for myself: I sat down early in life and sketched what I wanted in life, down to the smallest detail, and then worked relentlessly to achieve it, always keeping my eyes open for opportunities to advance. Your life plan, if clearly envisioned, will provide all the motivation you need. You just have to be open to opportunities and seize them as they arise. Earning wealth wasn't a main focus for me; I prioritized building a life of comfort, peace and freedom, and hit my goals, one at a time.
Caprino: Why do you think so many people overlook blue-collar jobs despite shrinking demand for white collar jobs?
Rusk: The blue-collar life has long suffered an undeserved stigma. With origins in the digital era of our economic transformation in the 80’s, an emerging trend was the beginning of the crisis of the American worker. The tradition of shop class, with woodworking machines, plumbing, electrical, car mechanics and home economics, was soon replaced with personal computing. While computer training was necessary for our kids to learn, it should not have been a binary choice.
The unintended consequence: millions of kids were eliminated from the necessary discovery of learning how to use everyday hand tools in favor of punching keyboards. Colleges, in turn jumped on board to funnel everyone into thinking a college education was the only path to success. Pursuing a trade was somehow gradually perceived as settling for less. And based on the rewarding opportunities that exist today, nothing could be further from the truth. And quite simply, working with your hands is enormously gratifying. The secret is that you can build an amazing life in an industry many others overlook.
Caprino: How did you end up training blue-collar workers to get on the right life path and why do you do this?
Rusk: Initially it came out of necessity. Some 33 years ago, I started a company with 12 employees we convinced to believe in our mission, stick with us through all the uncertainties, and work very hard in a tough business, all with the promise of making their lives better for it. We came up with effective strategies that we still use today, ideas we continue to modify and improve upon.
With over 200 employees today, I see unwavering loyalty and ever-lengthening tenure of our team members. Over time, the need for constant recruiting slowed significantly as people realized they could build the life they wanted for themselves within the organization. Helping to mold effective goal-driven team members is a key part of my “coaching” outside our organization. I enjoy playing a role in people improving their lives. And this should be a standard practice in any business. The ideas themselves are quite simple; it’s the execution of those ideas where most people fail.
Caprino: So, in your view, what holds back so many blue-collar workers from achieving the comfortable life they deserve?
Rusk: Unfortunately, some people in blue-collar professions haven’t yet seen who they are or who they’re meant to be. So many of us live by the if/then rule. For instance, “If this could happen in my life, then I’d be set. Or “If I could catch a break, then my life would be better.”
We wait for life to happen to us, instead of us happening to life—as it should be. But it’s amazing how much this can change once they have a vision of their future, and then plan it out accordingly. For example, we are all familiar with planning a vacation: pick a destination, maybe book a flight, rental cars, hotels, restaurants, attractions, etc. And then we wait in joyous anticipation of that day to come. We can see the week unfolding in our minds in crystal clear detail. And yet most of us live our daily lives in much too present fashion.
Research shows how effective a solid visualization strategy can be. According to a study conducted by Virginia Tech professor Dave Kohl (see his book Where Will You Be 5 Years from Now?) ), in a typical group of 100 people, 80 of them readily admit to not having any real goals. The remaining twenty do have goals but break themselves down in an interesting way: Sixteen of them have goals, however, they remain in their minds—like most hopes, wishes, or dreams, not documented in any real way.
The final four do write them down, yet three of them leave their goals in a drawer somewhere, rarely looking at them again. It’s interesting that the remaining one person not only visualizes their goals but writes them down in very clear fashion and then posts them somewhere where they can be seen daily and therefore reviewed often. They also tend to earn nine times as much in their lifetimes as those who do not follow this practice. And here’s the best part—anyone can do this.
You have the ability to be that one percent. We all do. With the right habits, you can design and achieve the life you want for yourself.
Caprino: What skills and training have you found to be essential to become an independent blue-collar worker?
Rusk: Historically, trainees would work for years before advancing. Not true today. With the high demand for anyone willing to work with their hands, one can enter the field of his or her choice, and quickly gain the experience needed to rise through the ranks of their chosen trade. So many business owners are in need of quality candidates, they now offer employees everything they can (competitive pay, training, bonuses, etc.) to keep them engaged. It is a workers’ market in today’s blue-collar industry and that bodes well for those looking to change or advance their careers.
Just like the theory in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, workers who can gain 4,000+ hours’ experience in a skilled trade, especially within a small company, can propel themselves to the top in both wages and responsibilities. This can also set them up to take the next step—starting their own company. And today it has never been easier to succeed as an entrepreneur.
Caprino: Why do you think women are helping drive today’s blue-collar boom—even in areas like welding and mechanics that were rarely considered in the past?
Rusk: In a not unexpected yet still somewhat surprising development, women are not so quietly moving into lucrative blue-collar positions traditionally held by men. Why? The answer is simple—they’re smart and they see the opportunity in front of them. Remember Rosie the Riveter? Savvy women are now making six figures in jobs that are in high demand, and both technology and their command of precise details and quality opens many doors. They realize their country needs them, maybe not under wartime duress, but they are now more critical than ever.
Caprino: In your view, what are the keys to comfort, peace, and financial freedom as a blue-collar worker or entrepreneur?
Rusk: I would start by imagining your life the way you want it. Everyone’s picture is different so there are no wrong answers. Only you know who (and what) you are meant to be. And only you know how to live the life you want.
Build on your expectations as you achieve each goal. Begin with the end in mind and forge a clear path to get there. Turn your if goals into when goals, and set exact, precise stepping-stones to measure your progress.
Build your plan with certainty and share it with your trusted support system (friends, family, or trusted coworkers). Once you start to make progress on this plan, you will mentally click into overdrive on your way to achieving your entire picture.
Here’s a simple formula to make this point clear:
Vocational Passion + Life Vision = Comfort, Peace and Freedom.
Further, I would recommend the following actions:
Commit to your goals: get all in and be accountable
Turn IF goals into WHEN goals by breaking them down into small, doable steps
Apply discipline to make financial goals a reality, using tactics like weekly payroll deductions
Envision your best life and sketch it out for yourself … then display it in a place you can’t miss (refrigerator door, bedroom, mirror)
Ensure your success by sharing your goals with trusted peers, friends and family.
To build a happier, more impactful career, read Kathy Caprino's new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss, and work with Kathy in her Career Breakthrough programs.
This article was originally published on Forbes and at Kathy's site.