Working-class Hero

By Chelle Cordero

May 7, 2010 5 min read

"Today's working class is diverse and changing. Working-class people make auto parts and tennis shoes, clean offices and hospital rooms, pack meat and pick vegetables, and provide hundreds of services that we all rely upon," as explained at the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.

College education is becoming a seemingly unattainable dream for many working-class families in our uncertain economy. Sometimes there are time constraints, such as raising families or other obligations, that prevent individuals from attending college. We still have to find ways to pay our bills and support ourselves and our families. In a world in which a bachelor's degree seems like the bare minimum, there are still trades out there that can earn you reasonable money.

"Trade and technical fields pay very well, and most come with benefits. Many times, you are paid for your training, so without college you can certainly build a career for yourself that can provide for a family. Some specific examples of high-wage occupations that don't require college are electrician, carpenter, laborer, operating engineer, ironworker, etc.," says Vanessa LaValle, outreach and communications coordinator at Hard Hatted Women. "This is one of the reasons Hard Hatted Women exists, because these types of jobs have been a proven anti-poverty strategy when women have access to them. Some grave statistics came out last fall about the face of poverty being the face of a woman and looking at the types of jobs women are traditionally clustered in -- secretaries, teachers, librarians, etc. -- and how much lower they pay while requiring more education often than the vocational track."

According to recent U.S. Department of Labor statistics, some of the fastest-growing professions that do not rely on a bachelor's degree as the primary source of education or training are registered nurse, home health aide, retail sales associate, construction laborer, truck driver, landscaper, medical assistant, office supervisor, licensed practical nurse, security guard, maintenance and repair worker, and teacher's assistant. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in March 2010, the average hourly wage in the United States was $22.47 -- which translates to a little more than $46,000 yearly, based on a 40-hour workweek.

In 2008, the Labor Department showed that people who had occupations with wages near the (then current) U.S. median included teachers and instructors, with employment of 574,540; billing and posting clerks and machine operators (512,120); inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers and weighers (467,010); welders, cutters, solderers and brazers (392,520); and dental assistants (293,090). Most occupations with wages near the U.S. median were in office and administrative support; construction and extraction; installation, maintenance and repair; or production.

The Home Builders Institute is the workforce development arm of the National Association of Home Builders. It has trained both youths and adults for careers in the residential construction trades for more than 35 years. Students in these programs spend time in both the classroom and working in the field and receive training in a number of different residential construction trades, such as plumbing and carpentry. "Many of the program graduates now have successful careers in residential construction despite not going to college," says Whitney Van Wyk of the Home Builders Institute. According to HBI, "Construction is one of the nation's largest industries, with 8.3 million workers. By the year 2012, there will be a need for an additional 1.1 million special trades contractors."

Dr. Sherry Linkon, professor of English and American studies and co-director for the Center of Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, says, "Of course there are good jobs to be had without a B.A. Plumbers, electricians and construction workers require some special training, but they're jobs that can't be done remotely via the Internet, and they're forms of work that aren't going to be replaced by technology. They may not have the social status of some more 'white-collar' forms of labor, but they generally pay pretty well, and because they are often unionized, they also often come with decent benefits." Linkon does caution, however, that some "job categories that are projected to see the most growth (and therefore offer the most jobs) over the next few decades don't require a college degree but also don't pay very well."

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