It’s a common notion nowadays that American blue-collar workers are doomed to live out their lives on the low-paid margins of the economy. They’ve been described as “bitter,” psychologically scarred and even an “endangered species.” Americans, noted one economist, suffered a “recession” but those with blue collars endured a “depression.”
Yet in recent years, according to research by Mark Schill of the Praxis Strategy Group, there’s been a strong revival in higher-paid blue-collar industries in many of our largest metropolitan areas, and the momentum is, if anything, building. Schill analyzed employment changes from 2007 to 2013 among a group of higher-paying blue-collar industries: oil and gas and mining; construction; manufacturing; and wholesale trade, transportation, warehousing and waste handling. Compensation in these sectors average $58,000 a year; in oil and gas, pay tops $100,000. In any case, these fields pay far better than alternative sources of employment for people without college degrees, such as retailing ($27,500), food service ($16,000), hospitality, or the arts ($31,000). Nationally, this cross section of higher-value blue-collar industries employs 31.3 million people, just more than a fifth of the nation’s workforce, up 1.3 million jobs since 2010.
This blue-collar resurgence seems likely to be more than a merely cyclical phenomenon. The U.S. edge in energy and manufacturing, increasingly linked, has sparked major new investments by both domestic and foreign producers. The new energy finds have created employment in the construction and operation of such things as pipelines and refineries, and have also led manufacturers to plan new factories here due to electricity and feedstock costs that are now well below those in Europe or East Asia.
The Boston Consulting Group suggests other factors sparking this revival. This includes rising wages in China as well as sometimes unpredictable business conditions that are leading some large U.S. companies to move some production to America from China.
Overall, since 2010 the number of high-value manufacturing jobs is up 167,000 in the 52 largest metropolitan areas while energy extraction added 50,000 positions. (Heavily subsidized renewables enjoyed a much smaller increase.) The wholesale trade and material handling sectors have added almost 300,000 jobs in that time. And as the economy has recovered somewhat, demand for housing, including in some once distressed exurban areas, has sparked a nascent revival in higher-paying construction employment. This key blue-collar sector, devastated by the recession, has gained roughly 200,000 jobs since 2010.
This revival is not evenly spread. The big winner is the Houston metro area, in large part due to the energy industry, which has added 23,000 jobs since 2010. It also reflects local growth in the high-wage manufacturing (up 30,000 jobs) and trade and transport sectors (up 26,000), while construction employment has surged nearly 20,000, a number matched only by the much larger New York metro area. Houston tops our list of the cities creating the most good blue-collar jobs. (Our ranking is based 50-50 on growth from 2007-13 and 2010-13.) Not far behind in second place is Oklahoma City, which has clocked a similarly broad increase, led by 28% growth in energy employment, 6% in construction and 15% in manufacturing.
Many of the other metro areas in our top 10 fit the same mold — traditionally business-friendly Sun Belt locales with strong energy sectors, and expanding manufacturing.
A Surge In The West
The Intermountain West also continues to create manufacturing and trade jobs at a rapid rate. This region’s blue-collar star is Salt Lake City, which places seventh on our list, led by a strong expansion in energy sector employment and trade and transport, with decent growth in manufacturing.
It’s not merely a “red state” phenomena. Progressive-dominated Denver places 11th on our list, with 32% growth in energy jobs as well as a 10% increase in construction employment. Similarly Portland (9th) and Seattle (10th) have produced more opportunities for blue-collar workers. This has been paced largely by strong growth in manufacturing, aided by low energy costs from hydro. Intel is building a large new factory near Portland, while Boeing has continued to add jobs in the Seattle area – its headcount in Washington State is up 17% since 2010.
Construction has also been healthy, in part due to migration from more expensive California, as well as trade, which ties into the region’s close ties to the Pacific Rim.
In contrast the “big enchilada” economies of California have lagged, and overall employment in high-paying blue collar sectors remains well below 2007 levels. But since 2010, there has been a modest uptick in manufacturing and construction in San Jose/Silicon Valley, which ranks 13th on our list, while San Francisco (16th) has seen some recovery in the transportation and trade sectors.
The Revival Of The Rust Belt
No part of the country is more associated with high-paid blue-collar work, and its decline, than the Rust Belt. Employment in most Rust Belt cities is well below 2007 levels, but since 2010 there has been a resurgence in high-paying manufacturing industries, led by the third-ranked Detroit area, which added 37,000 jobs.
This is clearly tied to the recovery of the U.S. auto industry. The East and West Coast media love to yammer about the demise of the car, but the industry’s production has returned to 2007 levels and automakers are investing in the region. GM has committed to spend over $1.3 billion to upgrade five factories in Ohio, Indiana, Detroit and the nearby Michigan cities of Flint and Romulus.
It’s more than an autos story in the region. Grand Rapids, which has a highly diverse manufacturing sector, including many furniture companies, has increased industrial employment 16% since 2010, putting it fourth on our list. Other Rust Belt metro areas making a blue-collar comeback are Louisville, Ky. (12th), Minneapolis (15th), Columbus, Ohio (18th), and Pittsburgh (19th).
Some metro areas have continued to lose high-wage blue-collar jobs, led by Las Vegas (down 4.2% since 2010), Orlando (-13.6% since 2007), Providence, Rochester and Philadelphia. Our two largest industrial metro areas, Chicago and Los Angeles, have seen slow growth, ranking 25th and 28th, respectively. Rapidly de-industrializing New York ranks 35th, despite the metro area’s surge in construction employment.
Yet overall, demand is rising for highly skilled workers at U.S. industrial and energy companies.
At a time when the wages of college graduates have been falling, it might behoove more young people to realize that, in many cases, a degree in art is not worth as much as a certificate for machining, welding, plant management or plumbing. Some metro areas are bolstering their efforts in this area, notably New Orleans, Columbus, Nashville and even creative class-oriented Portland.
To be sure, the golden days for working-class employment are over, but the future may prove to be a lot less dismal, particularly in some regions, than generally proclaimed by those who have rarely seen in the inside of factory or a refinery.
Blue Collar Industry Growth Index
Data source: QCEW Employees, Non-QCEW Employees & Self-Employed – EMSI 2013.4 Class of Worker. Analysis by Mark Schill, Praxis Strategy Group, firstname.lastname@example.org. The analysis covers 37 “blue collar” industry sectors at the 3-digit NAICS classification level, each averaging at least $40,000 in average annual pay (including benefits). Industries include oil and gas extraction, utilities, heavy and specialty construction, most manufacturing, merchant wholesale industries, most transportation sectors, warehousing and storage, and waste management.
This story originally appeared at Forbes.com and is republished here with permission from the author.
About the Author: Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.