I was in fifth grade when my elementary school teacher handed me a graded spelling test that had a red D circled at the top of the page.
“You need to start doing better on your tests or you’re going to be digging a ditch or working in some factory for the rest of your life,” she snarled, as the paper dropped into my hands and I placed it onto the top of my small desk.
She was absolutely right in that I needed to start taking my school work more serious and that there was a lot of unreached potential buried deep within that intelligent student who seemed to lack ambition; however, I never made it this far into what she was attempting to say: For me, I ceased listening to the woman the moment I realized by her tone that she equated factory workers to absolute scum of the earth — my father was a factory worker and it was the money that he earned while transforming coils of metal into the world’s most reliable fasteners that kept me fed, clothed and fueled my dreams.
As the school year continued, I heard her make that remark or very similar statements several times over and each time, her words seemed to chip away at the dignity of my father and dozens of other children’s parents.
From the earliest of years, to the moment we graduated high school, my generation of students were brainwashed by statements such as hers, the posters on the walls of our schools and by society into thinking that every student had to attend college and a collegiate level degree would equate to instant financial success; whereas, no college education meant that the remainder of our lives would be spent scrubbing toilets and waxing floors. Not a single time do I ever recall hearing anything about work ethic being a factor in achieving success in life, no, a college education the only key to happiness.
Fast-forward some three decades later and this afternoon I found myself wearing a tie, seated around a conference table alongside local business leaders discussing the financial status of various companies in our locality and region of Virginia.
“We’re running at maximum capacity — we could be making even more money, but it’s hard to find laborers,” stated one factory manager.
His words were echoed by another, “We’re paying big bucks for welders, but there aren’t many left.”
A local governmental leader then expressed his concern: “Our locality is doing well and unemployment is low in our county, but I fear that once our blue-collar workforce retires over the next decade, there’s going to be a labor shortage of actual workers and we might look at some of our manufacturing facilities leaving.”
While most evenings, I can easily be spotted on my property sporting rubber boots covered in mud and manure, when I head out to town most days, I’m wearing a white shirt with a power tie — my elementary school teacher got her wish.
Fascinatingly, many of the kids I attended school with who never aced those spelling tests or learned to properly diagram a sentence are the very ones who are banking double the income I am. They are America’s blue-collar workers and they are not just the backbone of this nation, but they are also its lifeblood. Many of the ones who have shown themselves willing to learn new trades and not afraid of work are doing very well.
Not everyone was made to drive a nail or a truck and very few find the idea of being covered from head to toe in axle grease, but the truth is everyone of us need these laborers and they are entitled to the nation’s praise and appreciation.
Every student in school should be pushed to their maximum academically speaking, but as society and country we also need to reevaluate our attitudes — there’s nothing dishonorable in welding, pouring a glass of sweet tea, or working on an assembly line… To put it simply, there’s nothing dishonorable in working.
In an era characterized by an unreliable workforce, I can’t help but wonder if maybe a generation ago, society created this by setting our children up to fail, lying to them by overinflating the true value of a college education — and now millions of kids are facing a bleak future tens of thousands of dollars in debt with useless degrees but no useful skills. A degree they were promised would serve as a magic bullet for success.
College degrees are wonderful and there’s no shame in wearing a suit to work; however, as we look into the future, we must get honest, too: Someone who can operate a backhoe or blowtorch is a heck of a lot more valuable these days than someone who knows how to type an email using correct grammar.
If you’re part of America’s blue-collar workforce, take pride in the job you do. You keep the world moving… and to the rest of the nation: We had better start recognizing the value of our blue-collar skilled workforce who know how to do things with their hands — if we lose them, we’ve lost everything.
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