Tom Berryman knows how to put young people in some pretty sweet blue-collar jobs. Graduates of the two-year auto-mechanics’ training courses he oversees at Lawson State Community College’s campus in Bessemer, Alabama,1 all get work at auto dealerships, most with starting salaries in the high-40s. If they’re lucky enough to end up at a Toyota dealership, they make over $60,000. That’s in a state with a median household income of $44,765.
“My guys are much more successful than a lot of four-year students after spending $14,000 for a two-year degree,” Berryman told me. Still, getting enough students to sign up can be a struggle. “If you can get me in front of the parents, I can get the kid here. But if the kid has to go home and explain it to the parents -- good luck!”
This was a recurrent theme during my visit to Alabama a few weeks ago. It was recurrent in large part because I happened to be talking to people involved with vocational education in the state. Still, it seemed telling. I met a bunch of people whose job it is to train workers for blue-collar occupations. And one of their biggest challenges is persuading enough young people (and their parents) that pursuing such work is a good idea. “It goes back to World War II,” said Jeff Lynn, the new head of workforce development for the state’s community college system. “Everybody wants their kid to get a four-year degree and become a nuclear physicist.”
It isn’t hard to see where the parents are coming from. This is from a recent report on “America’s Divided Recovery” by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce:
source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce
College graduates had an OK recession. Those with only high school degrees or less had a terrible one. Those with the associates degrees awarded by community colleges fell somewhere in between. The lesson would seem to be that getting at least a bachelor’s degree is a really, really good idea.
Still, there is a kind of blue-collar work that (1) doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree, (2) pays reasonably well and (3) shows no signs of going away. That would be skilled technical work, often focused on maintaining or fixing machinery. Here’s how auto mechanics and three other skilled blue-collar jobs categories have fared since 1997.