In the press, the phrase “blue collar” is often used as shorthand for white working-class men.
The visibility of this specific slice of the workforce has risen significantly since the 2016 election, when white working-class voters were frequently cited as key to Trump’s success. The president’s rhetoric has mixed blue-collar advocacy with more specific appeals to the white working class, playing on feelings of societal neglect and increased competition with nonwhite workers.
Our new data analysis, published in March, looks at employment data for skilled craft and trade workers, the relatively privileged slice of the blue-collar labor market, including carpenters, mechanics, plumbers and more.
For those in the workforce without an advanced degree, a craft job is something of a gold standard. These are among the highest-paid and most stable blue-collar jobs. Between 2011 and 2015, the average yearly income within these skilled craft and trades jobs was just over US$45,000. Compare that to an average income of $24,539 for laborers, who perform largely unskilled manual tasks, often within the same worksites as craft positions.
So who is getting these high-paying blue-collar jobs? And to what degree do the data support the media narrative? Our analysis reveals that the craft workforce is racially diverse and geographically varied, but overwhelmingly male-dominated.
Trends by race
Using the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2016 records, we analyzed how race, geography and other factors influence craft employment patterns.
We looked at representation rates for black, white and Hispanic men, based on the number of craft jobs held by a group relative to that group’s participation in state labor markets. For instance, since black people made up 10.2 percent of craft workers in New Jersey, but only 5.6 percent of the state labor force, then we can say that they are 81.4 percent overrepresented in these jobs in New Jersey.
Other racial and ethnic groups were not included in our analysis, due to their low overall representation in craft labor positions in most states.
With the exception of Hawaii, white men are employed in craft positions in all other states at substantially higher rates than their presence in state labor forces.
White men have the highest relative employment rates in craft jobs in states on the northeastern seaboard: Delaware, New York, Maryland, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
Hispanic men are also largely overrepresented in craft jobs, although their degree of overrepresentation varies more than white men’s across states. In Louisiana, for example, Hispanic men comprise 3 percent of the labor market, yet they hold 13.9 percent of craft jobs, an overrepresentation rate of 366 percent.
Black men are overrepresented in skilled craft jobs in all but four states. Like Hispanic men, they have a high peak representation in North Dakota, driven, we believe, by the fossil fuel industry boom.
Men versus women
Where are the women? The short answer: not working in craft jobs.
Nationwide, women are on average 80 percent less likely to work a craft job than men. The best state for access to craft jobs for women is New Hampshire, with 77 percent underrepresentation. Most states, however, hover closer to Montana, which posts the worst rate of 93 percent underrepresentation.
Women’s representation also differs from the racial pattern for men. Hispanic women held the most access, followed next by black women. White women were least likely to be employed in craft positions.
For women, low access to employment opportunities is by no means uncommon. Among the EEOC’s 10 listed employment categories, craft has the lowest overall representation of women in its workforce.
Small and uneven advances have been made in women’s access to craft positions. However, in many skilled labor fields such as construction, auto repair and electrical work, a range of cultural, political and organizational forces have all held back women’s entrance into these jobs.
Women continue to predominate within “care labor” occupations, such as teachers, nurses, child and elder care workers, as well as within service sector jobs, such as waitresses, receptionists and retail clerk positions. All of these jobs are often typified, with rare exception within unionized teaching and health care settings, by low pay and irregular work.
White craft workers’ representation is highest in demographically white parts of the country: New England, mountain states and the Midwest.
Among black and Hispanic craft workers, these trends are less apparent. The underrepresentation of black and Hispanic workers in states like Hawaii and Alaska might have to do with their relatively small populations in these states. But this logic doesn’t hold up in several states in which both black and Hispanic men see the highest representation in craft jobs, including North Dakota and Kansas.
Why is this? One possible explanation is that exclusionary old-line craft unions exert strong influence on both the hiring and training processes of particularly high-skilled and well-paid positions in construction and other craft sectors. Craft unions have historically been dominated by white ethnic communities. This could explain why four of the top five states for white representation are in the Northeast.
Contracts with the federal government may also influence craft employment. Federal contractors must agree to abide by affirmative action and other antidiscrimination policies, and are subject to random audit by the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs. The prevalence of federal contractor employment within Washington, D.C. could account for the greater representation of black and Hispanic craft workers there.
Changing the numbers
While far from a clear picture of craft employment patterns, our analysis does offer a more complex version of blue-collar labor than that typically offered through media coverage. Fears stoked by President Trump and many of his advocates that the white working class is being pushed out of the job market do not seem to apply to craft positions.
Furthermore, the growth of this sector of the economy seems to have opened up employment opportunities for Hispanic and black men, though all women are still largely shut out.
Given the strength of unions in craft labor markets, we advocate that these organizations double down on initiatives to recruit and retain new minority craft workers, using the power of the union hiring hall to broaden employment opportunities. These initiatives are an important legacy of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
We also think that the press should reframe its coverage of blue-collar employment not as a specifically white issue, but as one that affects opportunities for all workers.
Eric Hoyt is affiliated with the UMass Center for Employment Equity
JD Swerzenski is affilated with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst's Center for Employment Equity Center.