Blue-collar jobs are booming. White-collar jobs, not so much.

Alyssa DeOliveira once followed a well-trodden path that included college, a degree, and a subsequent office job. Urged by her family's expectations, she dabbled in nursing and accounting before finally opting for criminal justice, where she found a role in a law firm. Despite spending a year routinely tackling emails and voicemails, she craved a job that involved more human interaction and less screen time. Fast forward to today, you might spot DeOliveira if you take Boston's T on the green line where she works as a conductor. Her schedule is highly variable—sometimes her day starts at 4 a.m., and at other times it ends at 1 a.m. Whether she’s operating her favorite model of train, which includes a foot brake, or towing defective trains for repairs, her love for her job is evident. It's a sentiment that's reflected in her compensation and benefits too; she acknowledges making almost twice as much as she did in her office job, with additional perks like a pension and healthcare coverage.

DeOliveira represents a broader trend where blue-collar jobs are regaining their allure and competitive edge in the American job market. With increasing demand, ample opportunities, and significant benefits offered by companies like Walmart and UPS, these roles are attracting more attention. Contrastingly, the white-collar sector seems less appealing with minimal perks, looming layoffs, and the ever-present threat of automation. 

Outside Boston, where DeOliveira grew up, there was a prevailing view that blue-collar workers were less intellectual or committed compared to college graduates. This perception has shifted dramatically, with DeOliveira advocating for the trades to her younger relatives as a viable and respectable career path.

Nationally, the blue-collar sector is heating up. Chris Collins offers a personal testament to this shift. Moving to eastern Tennessee after high school, Collins encountered several job rejections due to his lack of degree and visible tattoos, until he found his niche in plumbing. He quickly gained expertise, received his license, and eventually set up his own successful business in 2008. Despite initial familial reservations about forgoing college for the trades, his success has changed their perspectives.

Social media has played a pivotal role in transforming the image of blue-collar work. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok have shifted focus from static aesthetics to dynamic, real-life action, showcasing everyday roles in construction, craftsmanship, and more, engaging audiences and garnering millions of views.

Simultaneously, financial concerns about college education have grown, particularly among millennials and Gen Z. The diminishing returns on investment in higher education, reflected in the dropping median wages for recent graduates, coupled with escalating student loan debts, have led to a growing skepticism towards the value of degree programs. This contributes to the enduring allure and practical appeal of blue-collar jobs.  

These years were crucial for other reasons, too. Bernie Sanders, long a champion of working people, leaped from Congress to the national presidential stage. As blue-collar companies struggled to staff up, they turned toward raising wages. Then came the pandemic — and a radical shift in how many Americans viewed work. White-collar workers saw the sunset on the zero-interest-rate phenomenon and watched how easily their roles could disappear. Many blue-collar workers, meanwhile, were deemed "essential." They were put in harm's way, often at the hands of bosses who didn't care about their health. Suddenly there was a consensus that they deserved to be paid more — or at the very least, respected. In a survey conducted in late 2021, 67% of blue-collar workers said they believed the pandemic changed how people viewed their jobs, and 75% of white-collar workers agreed. And while 62% of blue-collar workers said they believed that society generally looked down on them, 60% indicated they believed that having a blue-collar job was respected more than it was 10 years ago.

While blue-collar work still tends to pay less than white-collar professions, ADP found that last year new hires in the construction industry had a median salary of $48,089, while new hires in professional services made a median salary of $39,520. And in March, construction and mining wages were up 6.3% year over year — well above the overall wage growth of 5.2% in the same period.

Between 1979 and 2019 "there was pretty much zero growth in terms of real wages for this group," said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. But over the past four years, she's found that wages have increased for low-wage workers, and it's not a coincidence. It was partly a result of pandemic-era economic policy that stood in contrast to the more austere measures taken during the Great Recession. The money pouring into unemployment benefits and Americans' wallets — alongside protections like checks for parents and eviction moratoriums — meant that lower earners had not only a cushion but more opportunities to job hop. Those increases for the bottom 10% were beating out inflation and meaningfully improving people's living standards, Gould said.

Now, the economy is adding blue-collar jobs at a rapid clip. Since April 2020, industries like construction, manufacturing, transportation, and warehousing have added 4.5 million jobs, compared with 4.1 million jobs in the professional services and information sectors, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The trend is pointing upward: In their most recent employment accounting, blue-collar sectors well outpaced white-collar sectors.

"I used to always tell friends who need a job — I'm like, hey, why don't you work at Walmart?" Frankie Giambrone, a Walmart manager outside New York City, told me. "And they're like, no, no, no." But over the past two years, he said, their tones have changed. "Now I have the same people that are like, hey, can you get me a job there?" he said. Giambrone started working as a cashier at 15, making $8.25 an hour. Today he makes six figures and has a robust 401(k) and stock options. The company — which has had its own checkered history with its workers — even paid for him to get his bachelor's degree in business.

"I never thought Walmart to be my career," he said, "but now that I'm in this position, there's nowhere else I would want to be."

It also doesn't hurt that the country has a vocally pro-union president. "Before President Biden coming to office, there had been several decades in which there was a very strong emphasis on getting a four-year degree as the pathway to a middle class," Lael Brainard, the director of the National Economic Council, told me. "That's not how the president thinks."

Take Scott Gove, 57, who has worked for UPS for 30 years. He believes that the public has been slowly piecing together that union jobs — UPS workers are represented by the Teamsters Union — can provide a solidly middle-class life. "You take a drive through a UPS location and just look at the parking lot of what's parked there," he said. "That'll tell you the type of financial stability that the union has given its members."

Between the job stability and the ability to work with your hands, blue-collar work is sexy. Look no further than the extremely popular TikToks about bagging a blue-collar boyfriend or girlfriend. Or the people trying to find their next date on the apps.

"In February there was a 116% increase in mentions of blue-collared jobs on OkCupid profiles compared to the same month last year," Michael Kaye, the director of brand marketing and communications at OkCupid, told me. "The bottom line is an honest living is hot."

My wife will tell you the reason she married me was for my healthcare benefits.

Still, Giambrone said that when he tells prospective matches on dating sites that he works at Walmart, they'll often unmatch or ghost him — a sharp contrast to how his friends and relatives see his work. But he knows that down the line he'll find his person.

"We make good money. I'm stable," he said. "I love the fact that ultimately I work and I don't have to worry about a bed. I don't have to worry about living somewhere. I don't have to worry about food. I am comfortable. I live by myself. I have my two cats, and I'm happy."

Gove, the UPS driver, said there's a long-running family joke about his relationship. "My wife will tell you the reason she married me was for my healthcare benefits."

Collins, the plumber, said that when he started out, clients tended to be dismissive when he showed up. Now he's met with gratitude, especially as it becomes more difficult to find workers in short supply. When Alyssa DeOliveira changed careers, she was met with incredulity from some friends: Are you sure you want to drive a train? Are you scared? But her job expanded her friend group. "I have friends who are 60," she said. "It's all over the place. There are people from every ethnic background, all ages, any gender, any sexuality. My friends can fit any kind of group there is out there." That's on top of her old friends who have stuck by her during the career transition.

There is a tendency — particularly among white-collar workers — to look at blue-collar work through rose-colored glasses, to romanticize the hard work and skills it requires. The labor market hasn't completely reversed course; blue-collar jobs may be booming, but a bachelor's degree is still often a prerequisite for roles with high pay and numerous benefits. And even with prominent labor actions like those from United Auto Workers members and Teamsters, union membership in the US is at a record low.

"The reality is this is a slow-moving tide, and it has been the case for a very long time that there's been stigma and a general sense that these kinds of industries and this kind of work is somehow less than," Sam Pillar, the CEO of Jobber, a software company that services small blue-collar businesses, told me. "Obviously we think that's total horseshit."

Jeff Goldalian, an electrician who owns two brick-and-mortar stores and runs a YouTube channel that teaches people how to become electrical contractors, believes that just posting about the merits of blue-collar jobs might elide the hard work required to make them sustainable.

"There's a dark side to the trades if you don't know it," he told me. "As an electrician, if you don't know how to get proper training, where to get training or licensing, you're setting yourself up for failure."

Blue-collar work is, at the end of the day, work. There are bad bosses, difficult coworkers, and shareholders who value their profits over the workers generating them. Americans increasingly want more from their work, but they don't have the leverage to truly change their conditions — yet. The appeal of blue-collar work might lie in the fact that, to some extent, it satisfies the conditions economists say are required for worker power: Employers need this work, it's not easy to replace, and many of these jobs have the backing of a union. All those things, though precarious, are now more visible.

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