A Question of Value: Blue Collar Skills

Me, in a compression chamber at one of our system schools.

Me, in a compression chamber at one of our system schools.

Tonight I had the opportunity to hear Nick Pinchuk, Chairman and CEO of Snap-on, Inc., deliver a keynote address. Snap-on, of course, is the manufacturer of Snap-on Tools. I work for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, and we are having our professional development conference this week. Snap-on is there because they are investing in Career and Technical Education in this country. Of course they are. They make tools, and they have a vested interest in the industries that employ technical school graduates. I loved his message. He told the story of how Snap-on got started. It began with one man with a simple but great idea. I love those kinds of stories.

I worked at Whirlpool Corporation for 10 years of my career. The company is headquartered in a small town in Southwest Michigan called Benton Harbor. It is a rural town. It’s bigger now because of the international corporation that has its home there, but, before Whirlpool grew into a major appliance manufacturer, it was a small town. Lou Upton, the founder of Whirlpool, invested all of his savings into a household equipment manufacturing company that failed in the early 1900s. He took with him a patent for a washing machine – a wringer washer. A hardware square across the pond – Lake Michigan – was having some success, so Upton brought his washing machine over in his pickup truck to see if they wanted to sell it. He made a handshake deal to sell Sears 25 washers per month. For a report on the full story, see this essay.

Now, this is what I imagine. Lou is 30 years old. He lives in a small town. He just lost all of his money. I’m quite sure at 30 he would have have a family to support in those days. He had to do something. I don’t know what month it was, but the summers aren’t very long there, and, even if it was summer, he’d be thinking he had to get something going before winter settled in. He didn’t get up in the morning, have a meeting with his board of directors, consult the sales figures, and decide to sell washers to Sears. He was just trying to make a living, and he knew how to build a washer. So, he loaded it up on his truck and took a risk.

My first experience with technical schools was probably about 11 years ago. I was exploring ways to fix a predicted problem for our company. Appliances break, and we need appliance technicians to fix them. Without that, we have no way to service our warranties. The average age of the appliance technicians we employed was 46. We needed to find out how to attract young people to the field. I researched and bench-marked the auto technician career path because the auto industry had done a fantastic job of turning that field into a lucrative career. They did it with the help of the technical colleges and by investing in the training just as Snap-on is doing. We decided to run a similar pilot at a technical college. So, I got to work with the teachers, administrators and students in a program very different from my college experience.

So, now I’m in Southern Louisiana, and I’m working in a job where career and technical education is our focus. I visited schools all over Louisiana, and I got to see the programs offered for local industries. There are programs for the oil-field workers. Another school had a chemical plant simulator onsite. And most had some sort of mechanical systems programs. I was struck at how ignorant I was of the types of jobs that are available in these fields… and how highly valued the skills are. And just like the appliance technicians, the number of people who are skilled at this type of work is shrinking. A friend of mine explained that in his field it is important that a worker have mechanical aptitude. When he was growing up, his father always had them working on cars, tractors and other machinery. Today, it is much rarer for kids to grow up with this type of experience. So, they start learning at a deficit. It takes longer to get them up to speed, and they may not ever have the aptitude for it.

I know that there are companies down here struggling for qualified workers. I know the schools are struggling to figure out how to train them all. I’ve heard more than once that career and technical education has to be a priority. I doubt Lou Upton ever went to a technical school. He laid the groundwork for a Fortune 500 company that supported the families of many, many people. I wonder who he would hang with? The members of the board of directors? The project managers? Or the appliance technicians? My guess is he’d probably grab a cup of coffee with a technician and have him … or her ... show him how the new machines work. He would have valued their expertise.

I think that we’ve lost the spirit in this country that values the skills of the blue collar worker. Sure, in many cases they are paid well. But, I’m not talking about pay. I’m talking about respect for what they do. If something goes wrong with anything I own, I value them. I value them coming over as fast as they can, fixing my air conditioner, repairing my car or replacing the broken part on my refrigerator. But, have I – and do I – see their skills as valuable as those of an attorney, a teacher or someone with an academic degree? Pinchuk raised the question tonight, “If your nephew said he wanted to be an auto mechanic or a welder, how would you feel?” Why do we even need to ask the question? Those are the people who built this country. Let’s not forget them. Is there another Lou Upton out there who will provide your grandchildren with jobs because they took a risk with their greasy hands and created something useful? What if we don’t give them the opportunity to take that risk?

2 thoughts on “A Question of Value: Blue Collar Skills

  1. So true. What is our gut reaction when someone says their kid is going to tech or vocational school? I know mine and it’s not the same as when they say their kid is going to a famous university to study a STEM subject.
    These jobs cannot be out-sourced and for the most part, cannot be done by a robot. Yet.
    Everyone wants to start up an app company in their living room and make a million. If you’re not making something that can be delivered over the internet you are in the wrong business. Everything can’t be digitized. We still need physical items and we need people to fix and maintain them.

    • Yes. I was just talking to a friend of mine who works for an oil company. He said they will be needing to hire 2500 new skilled workers for a project he’s designing. Where will they come from?

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