The 2016 presidential campaign brought the issue of blue-collar jobs moving overseas to the forefront of debate. Investopedia defines blue-collar jobs as:
“a working-class person historically defined by hourly rates of pay and manual labor. A blue collar worker refers to the fact that most manual laborers at the turn of the century wore blue shirts, which could hold a little dirt around the collar without standing out.”
Blue-collar jobs have typically been defined as those requiring physical labor; non-office jobs. The argument throughout the 2016 US presidential campaign was blue-collar jobs have moved overseas, decimating the middle class. What were not discussed were the new blue-collar workers that are changing the middle-class landscape.
In the December 2016 issue of Wired magazine, Clive Thompson noted the new class of blue-collar workers, programmers. Removing the manual labor equation (i.e., physical work), millions of programmers are working 40 hours week, doing “grunt work” for organizations, for excellent wages and a relatively secure future. Only a small percentage (8%) of programming jobs is in Silicon Valley (the “sexy” programmers). The less sexy programming jobs (e.g., maintaining internal company databases, business analysts), the majority of positions, can be seen as the future of the middle class. How do we build the middle class?
Prisons are now training inmates in programming for future jobs after release. In the past, prisons trained inmates in typical blue-collar jobs such as welding, auto mechanics, or carpentry. Preparing the inmates for a life after prison, and the possibility of a good middle-class life, is changing the ecosystem of the prison system.
In the same issue of Wired, Issie Lapowsky noted how San Quentin prison is teaching inmates how to program within an internal web development workshop called The Last Mile Works. The inmates learn a valuable skill, make more money than other prison jobs, and have a strong future to reduce recidivism. Similarly, programming can be developed as a life skill in high schools and community colleges the same way as traditional blue-collar jobs. The coal belt is preparing for a world without coal as it works to train ex-coal miners with the skills for the modern workforce, programming and other computer-related skills.
As the world changes and typical blue-collar jobs move offshore (i.e., companies seek low wage alternatives), it might be a good time to reinvent our definition of what a blue-collar job is, and rebuild the middle class. In addition, the ability to empower a whole generation of workers with a critical skill for a comfortable and secure future can stimulate the economy. The need to go to a four-year college to get a computer science degree might be dated. Students can join the workforce right after high school or a few years of community college learning various programming languages. As we reinvent all types of industry (e.g., VR, self-driving automobiles, share economy), it might be time to reinvent the middle class and look at a world, good or bad, as it unravels and shifts.