Where the Blue-Collar Jobs Will Be

The United States has seen a steady erosion of blue-collar work over the past several decades. We define blue-collar, working class jobs as those which primarily make use of physical skill or manual labor. These occupations include not only factory work or production occupations, but jobs in construction, materials moving, transportation, installation, and repair. Blue-collar, working class jobs currently account for 23 percent of all U.S. employment. Blue-collar occupations and the regions that specialize in this kind of work have seen the highest levels of unemployment and the greatest vulnerability to the economic crisis. The decline of high-paying, blue-collar jobs for lower-skilled workers has caused considerable concern that the U.S. is losing an important source of good, family-supporting jobs, and that the American labor market is becoming more uneven and increasingly split between higher-paying knowledge work and lower-paying routine service work. But what will the geography of blue-collar work look like in the future?

The map above shows the metros with the biggest projected gains in blue-collar work. Not surprisingly, the biggest metros top this list. The biggest gainer is Greater New York which is projected to gain 41,084 working-class jobs followed by Houston (32,249), Chicago (30,482), Los Angeles (28,811), Phoenix (23,957), Atlanta (22,754), Washington, D.C. (21,387), Dallas (19,315), Riverside (16,755), and Las Vegas (14,781).

But job growth is a function of population size; it's expected that large regions will dominate the list of the biggest job generators. So, the next map plots the projected percentage change in working-class jobs for U.S. metros. The regions with the largest projected working class increases are all in the Sun Belt: Pascagoula, MS (8.2 percent), Naples, FL (8.1 percent), Punta Gorda, FL (7.9 percent), Santa Fe, NM (7.4 percent), Cape Coral, FL (7.4 percent), Farmington, NM (7.4 percent), Jacksonville, NC (7.2 percent), Las Vegas ( 7.1 percent), Grand Junction, CO (7 percent), and St. George, UT (7 percent). The places with the slowest projected growth are mainly traditional manufacturing metros such as Elkhart (.2 percent) and Columbus, IN (1.06 percent), Muskegon, MI (1.16 percent), Oshkosh, WI (1.41 percent), Hickory, NC (.68 percent), and Dalton, GA (.46 percent), among others.

The next map shows the regions that are projected to have the highest share of their workforce doing blue-collar work out to 2018. Elkhart, IN, tops the list with nearly half (48.5 percent) of its workforce in blue-collar jobs - though that is down from 51.3 percent in 2008. It is followed by Dalton, GA (45.9 percent), Morristown, TN (40.9 percent), Houma, LA (40 percent), Decatur, AL (37.6 percent), Fort Smith, AR (36.5 percent), Hickory, NC (35.8 percent), Odessa, TX (35.4 percent), Gainesville, GA (35.3 percent), and Sheboygan, WI (34.3 percent).

The good news is that the U.S. will continue to create relatively high-paying working class jobs. These jobs will continue to provide good livelihoods for the workers fortunate enough to have them. The bad news is that their rate of growth will be sluggish and not nearly enough to provide the amount of good, family-supporting jobs required to undergird a middle class of lower-skilled workers. The harsh reality is that blue-collar, working class jobs in the U.S. are increasing slowly, and they will grow the slowest in traditional manufacturing and industrial regions and communities whose economic and social life has revolved around these jobs. There is little policy-makers can do - aside from declaring a trade war - to bring back large numbers of these high-paying jobs. But they can develop strategies to improve not just the wages but the content of blue-collar work, by engaging workers more fully and seeing them as a source of innovation. And they can help to infuse more creativity and design into manufacturing products, helping to broaden their market and counteract the trend toward declining prices. And policy-makers will have to develop strategies for improving wages and the content of work in other faster-growing segments of the economy, a point I will get to in my next post, which will cover the projected growth of service jobs.