Mike Womack
guest editorial
By Mike Womack, New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program Inc.
No collars, just careers
Stop job shaming and celebrate critical skills

lue collar” is a term I despise. My collar was blue the day I wrote this article, and I work behind a desk. I know a welder who makes nearly double my salary. Categorizing career paths by the color of one’s collar is irrelevant and demeaning. Forget about the collars, focus on the career, and stop stigmatizing a critical function in society.

For decades, students have been steered away from industrial work. Manufacturing was painted as dangerous, dark, dirty, or only for those that couldn’t make it through a four-year college. If this misinformation campaign wasn’t so rampant, the $1.7 trillion in U.S. student debt might be a bit lower.

College is a good option for some. However, education isn’t exclusive to college. Fruitful careers don’t all require a degree. The career path sold by high schools today is misguided and without substance.

Defining success
The term blue collar implies the work pays less. The tropes are that white collar workers are to be more respected, blue collar workers aren’t as educated and that white collar workers are more successful. Yet, I know blue collar workers who are more educated, have a more robust skills set and are very successful. The segmentation of professional careers is damaging the reputation of the industrial worker.

All manufacturing in New Jersey was considered essential by the governor. The New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program Inc. (NJMEP) worked alongside the governor’s team during the pandemic to highlight the value of industry and explain the damaging effects of disrupting the supply chain by shutting any manufacturing down. Employers weren’t furloughing their workforce at the rate other sectors experienced because the world required the products these manufacturers create.

Robots and automation will not eliminate the need for people in manufacturing. That myth needs to be put to rest as well. The world needs people to program these robots, support the production process, analyze processes, transport goods. Manufacturing requires people, and all these people are essential. A career in manufacturing is a career that matters.

Pushing people away from industrial careers based on stigmas causes irreparable harm to our nation and economy.
The average annual salary for a manufacturing professional in New Jersey is over $94,000. People don’t believe this. They ask if there actually is a manufacturing industry in New Jersey. Many in my generation, born in the early 1990s, were sold the story that all manufacturing went overseas. People said there was no opportunity in manufacturing. The only way to get a career that will pay the bills was to go to college, rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and hope for the best once you graduate. That simply isn’t true.

Manufacturers mix technology with hands-on work to create the world we see around us. I will ask someone to look around the room and point out three things that aren’t manufactured. The exercise can either end extremely quickly or in a drawn-out fashion with someone trying to prove a point, only to eventually fold.

Picking a trade after high school does not write off college. There is no right way of handling one’s education. Industrial workers are exposed to advanced mathematics, engineering principles, businesses fundamentals, supply chain logistics and countless other highly profitable, highly studied areas. Building a foundation of technical knowledge is a fantastic way to get started in life. There’s no rule saying an individual can’t apply for college after a few years working in industry. On the contrary, it makes financial sense. After a few years of work, this individual will be more financially secure and potentially be able to pay for college without burying themselves in mounds of student debt.

Moving forward
Everyone walks a different path. There is no right or wrong way to progress in life, as long as progress is being made. Pushing people away from industrial careers based on stigmas causes irreparable harm to our nation and economy.

Labeling career types and saying, “some people aren’t college material” or “college isn’t for everyone,” is unhelpful. As a culture, we are moving away from labeling, working toward becoming open minded and embracing all walks of life. Career paths should not be left out of this conversation. Prejudging a career, based on an outdated label and stigma, prevents progress. People who have a passion for creating or who seek fulfilling work where they can see a tangible result can acquire on-the-job experience in a career that can last a lifetime. There are no collars, just careers; it’s time to stop job shaming for the betterment of society.

A graduate of William Patterson University, Mike Womack was the marketing manager for a New Jersey manufacturer before joining the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program Inc., where he is the marketing and communications manager.