You can call it what you like — blue collar vs. white collar; trade vs. profession; making things vs. selling things — but to me, the clearest way to divide occupations is this:
Do you do stuff with your hands — like build things or fix things or smash things or screw things onto other things — or do you do stuff with your mouth — like sell things or say things on paper or argue things or say things on the telephone?
People who work in the skilled trades mostly do stuff with their hands. People who work in journalism or banking or other “white collar” jobs mostly do stuff with their mouths.
(Yeah, I know: writing is done by hand. But really, journalism and the like are talking professions.)
There are an awful lot of Americans, these days, who do stuff with their mouths. Not so many who do stuff with their hands. And that’s a big problem. From the Wall Street Journal:
Even as the economy slumps and unemployment rises, strong demand for power plants, oil refineries and export goods has many manufacturers and construction contractors scrambling to find enough skilled workers to plug current and future holes.With the shortage of welders, pipe fitters and other high-demand workers likely to get worse as more of them reach retirement age, unions, construction contractors and other businesses are trying to figure out how to attract more young people to those fields.
By 2012, demand in fields like welding is expected to exceed supply.Their challenge: overcoming the perception that blue-collar trades offer less status, money and chance for advancement than white-collar jobs, and that college is the best investment for everyone.
And the always bracing Camille Paglia rings in here, in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Having taught in art schools for most of my four decades in the classroom, I am used to having students who work with their hands—ceramicists, weavers, woodworkers, metal smiths, jazz drummers. There is a calm, centered, Zen-like engagement with the physical world in their lives. In contrast, I see glib, cynical, neurotic elite-school graduates roiling everywhere in journalism and the media. They have been ill-served by their trendy, word-centered educations.
Jobs, jobs, jobs: We need a sweeping revalorization of the trades. The pressuring of middle-class young people into officebound, paper-pushing jobs is cruelly shortsighted. Concrete manual skills, once gained through the master-apprentice alliance in guilds, build a secure identity. Our present educational system defers credentialing and maturity for too long. When middle-class graduates in their mid-20s are just stepping on the bottom rung of the professional career ladder, many of their working-class peers are already self-supporting and married with young children.
And she winds up this way:
In a period of global economic turmoil, with manufacturing jobs migrating overseas and service-sector jobs diminishing in availability and prestige, educators whose salaries are paid by hopeful parents have an obligation to think in practical terms about the destinies of their charges…every four-year college or university should forge a reciprocal relationship with regional trade schools.
I’d love to see that! The Yale University School of Art & Architecture & Plumbing. The Harvard School of Business and Finish Carpentry. The College of Welding and Sociology at Princeton.