Dr. Jim Bailey
Guiding You to Work that FIts

Work-Life Blog

About Your Work-Life

The Dignity of Work

You might not know it to look at me, or at pictures of me on my website, but I'm something of a do-it-yourself kind of guy. I'm always working on something around my house, building some piece of furniture (albeit, industrial-rustic furniture) or helping some person or group with a construction or demolition project.

Recently I've merged my passion for home improvement with my work as a career coach through the inspiration of Mike Rowe of the television show Dirty Jobs fame. For several years Mike has had his own foundation - mikeroweworks - that has increasing the number of young people getting started in the building trades as one of its goals. Mike recently teamed with the good people at PBS' This Old House TV show to promote this cause.

As a career coach I understand the value of all work and (despite my own educational path) I'm a firm believer that 4-year (or more) college educations aren't the best career steps for everyone. Truth be told, a large number of folks would be better served by getting the shorter-term practical education and training that used to mark most of the those in well-paying jobs in America. Training for these, like apprenticeships and technical education, are often not just better suited to the wiring of many but they often lead to good paying jobs. Ironically, these are the very jobs for which there are increasingly few young people available. And yet, they are less impacted by economic fluctuations and are currently in high demand.

Many young people don't consider positions in the trades as attractive options in their career paths. Social media rarely promote the life of the plumber, electrician, auto mechanic, HV/AC specialist or carpenter as a glamorous vocational goal. In fact, many teens are relatively unaware of the financial and lifestyle benefits of such jobs. Simply put, they (and too often, their parents) think of these as menial, low status jobs. In the hierarchy of work prestige they are often viewed as a step above fast food.

As a Career Coach I am always reading the latest books on career, calling, vocational identity, the changing face of work and similar themes. One of my favorite reads of the past several years has been Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller. Keller actually has an entire chapter devoted to The Dignity of Work wherein he discusses the growing divide between the perceived personal value of "knowledge class" work and "service sector" work. He draws attention to the trend of young people pursuing careers that promise higher prestige (and perhaps wages) or opting to avoid working altogether if they believe a job is "beneath them". For many who make it into the knowledge classes, the trades and other service-oriented jobs are simply not an option due to their perception of a low prestige in those jobs. 

Alternatively, I've interacted with hundreds of college students who've finished a 4-year degree, mounded up a significant amount of student loan debt and can't find the type of job they were virtually promised by their school. These poor souls are reasonably disillusioned by their experience, but they're often more angry because they were hoping their degree and related career were going to answer their questions about who they are and what they're supposed to be in the work world. When the jobs they can get are $32,000 jobs in sales and not the $75-100,000 management jobs they were promised. Ironically, they've never stopped to ask the important questions about whether their chosen career path actually fits who they are and what they want in their life.

Recently this reality was brought home to me through the experiences of my son. As a child he's once told his mother an I that he wanted to be a "Dump Truck Dirt Digger" when he grew up. Twenty years later this straight-A college student is struggling to find a job in one of the fastest growing cities in America. His hard earned college diploma in a major he loved hasn't led to the job ticket he'd hoped. Lately I've actually wondered if he would have had more job-seeking success if he'd learned to operate the heavy earth moving machinery he loved as a kindergartner.

What's my point? Simply that students, parents, and the larger society shouldn't dismiss certain career paths because they believe there is less social status associated with that type of work. Jobs that you can obtain with technical education, two-year degrees or apprenticeships can be viable and potentially lucrative careers for people who are wired for them and have live aspirations that fit these.  So, if your friend or child happens to mention interest in the trades or "blue collar work" think twice about reflexively asking if she or he is kidding - they may be onto something. 

James Bailey