Blue Collar or New Collar? The Fight Over Manufacturing's Future

In the face of a growing workforce and skills gap, should factory workers be trading their blue collar for a “new collar?” While some call for a return to the days of old as the way forward for American manufacturing, others are saying it's high time for

“Stop using the term 'blue collar worker' and start using the term 'essential worker,' ”John Ratzenberger told an audience during his keynote at the 2018 Advanced Design & Manufacturing Show in Cleveland (ADM Cleveland). The actor-turned-advocate, best known as the mailman Cliff Clavin from Cheers, believes American manufacturing has entered a crisis brought on by a conflation of new age thinking, the lack of shop classes for kids, music lyrics, and an all-around tenderness and softness that has emerged in American sensibilities. “[Nowadays] you have to worry about the lobster's feelings so you can't boil it,” he scoffed.

John Ratzenberger during his keynote at ADM Cleveland.

That's right, the mailman from Cheers says we've forgotten how to build things and are currently raising “the first generation of useless children.” All of this, according to Ratzenberger, is evidenced by various anecdotes: his college-educated son who abruptly changed careers and became a plumber earning a six-figure salary; the contractor in New York City who travels to Argentina to find qualified welders (and certainly not to avoid hiring workers at a union wage as one might infer); the scholarship student who became a diesel mechanic after noticing a great need for them in her town; and the supervisor at the Grand Coulee Dam who told Ratzenberger there are no qualified engineers coming up the ranks who will be able to maintain the dam in the coming decades.

“We should offer more vocational schools, but we should get kids interested while they're young,” he said. Ratzenberger, who credits his background and skills as a carpenter as what kept him afloat financially while he pursued an acting career, also blamed a lack of parental involvement for younger generations' disinterest in manufacturing. To be fair, he may not be wrong on that front. A 2016 study by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) found that 20 percent of parents surveyed view manufacturing as outdated and/or dirty work. Half of respondents didn't view it as an exciting, challenging, or engaging profession. And nearly 25 percent of parents surveyed did not feel manufacturing was a well paying profession (according to the SME, the average U.S. manufacturing worker makes $77,506 annually).

“We're running out of people that know how to make and fix things,” Ratzenberger told the audience, bemoaning that because, “we took shop class away from kids” it has created a generation uninterested in manufacturing and created a labor pool in which the average age of a factory worker is 50 to 60 years olds. “You have new recruits coming into your facilities and can't read a ruler, he said. “[They've] never turned a screw or pounded a nail, so how do you expect them to fit into your manufacturing work?”

Much of this he blamed on “the nonsense that came out of the '60s,” which Ratzenberger apologized for, sharing that he was one of the carpenters who built the stage at Woodstock. “If I'd known I would have rigged that Woodstock stage to collapse for sure,” he said, only half-jokingly.

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