ICS Magazine

Blue-Collar Bias

November 11, 2004


People let out a whistle when they hear about triple-digit hourly fees charged by lawyers, business consultants and sundry white-collar specialists. But observe them closely when the subject comes up: they don't accuse the practitioners of ripping them off. They are more awestruck than disdainful. They don't like paying through the nose for those services but accept it as the way the world operates.

It's only when trade workers present their bill that blood boils and stinging jokes fly. Blue-collar bias is endemic to our society. We can see it in the different work rules and amenities. Hourly workers get docked for taking personal time off, while salaried staffers typically get cut some slack. Office clerks get free coffee, phone privileges and clean restrooms, while skilled craftsmen make do with vending machines, pay phones and port-o-potties.

Back in the early '90s, the media was filled with teary stories about layoffs of corporate managers amid the restructuring of our economy. Journalists could identify with their pain while never giving a second thought to layoffs as a fact of life among construction and factory workers.

High school counselors everywhere advise students they have a better future as a third-rate paper shuffler than a craftsman. And check out the scholarship offerings: see how many are available for trade education vs. college.

Repercussions
Have I made my case yet? I could go on for pages detailing the short-shrifting of the blue-collar world, but I'm preaching to the choir. All of you know what it's like to be treated as second-class citizens. More significant than personal affront is the damage blue-collar bias does to your trade and your industry. Two repercussions in particular stand out:

  • You have a devil of a time attracting talented young people to your trade.
  • You have a devil of a time getting paid full value for the work you do.

    This second problem causes the first, in that it depresses the pay scales for skilled cleaning technicians, many of whom would be more willing to put up with blue-collar indignities if they were adequately compensated for it.

    Devaluation of the trades has gotten progressively worse in recent decades. When I was growing up, a high school education was a notable intellectual milestone, and fewer than a third of the work force went to college. Now, more than half the work force has at least some college, although there's been so much dumbing down of admission standards and curricula that many college degrees today don't signify any more intellectual acumen than a high school diploma of yesteryear. Nonetheless, most parents would rather see junior get a sheepskin from a third-rate college than acquire a skilled trade from the best vocational school or apprenticeship program.

    What to Do?
    The industry's great task is to overcome this image problem and do what it takes to bring back pride and prosperity to the trade. Here are some suggestions:

    Sell the glamour of cleaning. Glamour! Am I nuts? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Observe how many of your clients spend their time watching you work. True, some may be doing it to keep an eye on you, but more than you would think are truly interested in the mechanical workings of the equipment and the procedures you execute. What's more, the need for these skills will never disappear. Work may ebb and flow with the economic cycles, but clean is here to stay. Even when the carpet-cleaning business slows down, plenty of maintenance and other work (upholstery, hard-surface cleaning, etc.) needs to be done. Any marketing person who can't romance these elements ought to look for a different line of work.

    Recruit college students and graduates. In trades as a whole, more and more apprenticeship programs are discovering high schools to be a dead end. Even kids who have an aptitude for trade work tend to be driven away from it by peer pressure, parents and counselors.

    Seek them out in junior colleges and universities after they've tasted the academic world and decided whether it's to their liking. You'll find many of them feeling miserable and looking for alternatives. Parents who would have felt like failures a couple of years ago if their child didn't go to college may support an alternative to seeing their money frittered away in failing grades and fraternity hijinks.

    Even many college graduates may find the trade a welcome option compared with the dead-end white-collar jobs that await those who were slacker students. Older, educated apprentices hold a lot of potential for your firm and the industry as a whole, and well-educated cleaning technicians are a perfect antidote to blue-collar bias.

    Stir the entrepreneurial juices. One of the best, and perhaps most underutilized, recruitment pitches is the opportunity available to own one's own business. Small companies dominate the residential and light commercial marketplace, and entry barriers are tiny compared with many other businesses.

    Before doing this, though, it is important to become thoroughly educated in both the technical and business aspects of the cleaning business. The last thing the industry needs is more cleaners opening up shop without any clue as to what it takes to service customers and make a profit.