Many blue-collar workers, like their white-collar counterparts, can’t afford or don’t want to retire.
Like many people, Steve Guadalupe has had a varied career.
Now 68 and living in Miami, he started in the Air Force working in personnel. He left in 1983, using his technology background to get jobs at centralized bank data centers.
When that work dried up in the late ’80s, he shifted into construction, eventually ending up on a maintenance crew for a six-story medical building on the grounds of the Baptist Hospital of Miami. “Climbing up and down ladders, your legs would be sore when you got home,” he said. “As I got older, I decided I wouldn’t be able to keep doing that.”
With his youngest son in college, he still needed an income. In 2000, Guadalupe shifted from maintenance to running the concierge desk, directing people when they enter the medical building for a procedure or visit. He knows the building well, and he likes the work. Maintenance pays more, he noted, but “this job, I can do until I’m 80.”
Blue-collar jobs are hard work. Eventually, most blue-collar workers find the wear and tear on their bodies too draining to continue. Moreover, many industrial companies are reluctant to hire or keep older workers as the number of such jobs shrinks. Yet many blue-collar workers, like their white-collar counterparts, can’t afford or don’t want to retire (often a combination of the two).
The solution many are turning to is to switch to jobs that require less heavy lifting but still take advantage of their accumulated knowledge and skills. The downside? The pay is often less.
One option is mentorship. With a worsening shortage of welders, machinists and other crafts workers, apprenticeship programs offer older skilled workers a less strenuous job opportunity: Teaching their craft to the next generation.
“Blue-collar retirees are committed to their fields,” says Robert Eckardt, executive vice president at the Cleveland Foundation. “There is space for blue-collar people to mentor.”
Gary Dudich, 64, followed in his father’s footsteps to become an ironworker in the Cleveland area after graduating from high school. He retired in 2007 after three decades of practicing his craft. His pension is $1,924 a month, after taxes and health care premiums are deducted.
The problem is, his pension will be cut to a mere $741 a month at the end of this year unless Congress devises a bailout for his troubled multi-employer pension plan. Dudich has returned to work to pay off his bills so he won’t lose his home if his pension shrinks.
In his new job, he helps the welding instructor at the Max S. Hayes High School, a career and technical school in Cleveland. The pay is modest at $18 an hour, and the job is limited by contract to 40 hours a month. Still, he clearly enjoyed his experience with students last year, and he’s looking forward to the new school year.
He has gone to car shows with some students and, since he has a flip phone, some call him the “Star Trek guy,” he says. “These kids are great,” he says. “As long as my health is good, I want to do this. I’m having a good time, and they’re having a good time.”
The last few decades have been hard on blue-collar workers. Smokestack America has been battered by low-cost international competition. Many companies shuttered their domestic plants and set up shop in low-cost regions abroad. Others used technology to enhance productivity and slashed their workforces to sustain their operations. Technological advances have made some skills obsolete. Job transitions are rarely easy.
Still, a community and technical college infrastructure has developed over the years to educate and retrain skilled labor. “It’s actually easier for blue-collar people to get help thinking about alternative careers because most of the government help is aimed at them,” says Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “Funds and training associated with displaced workers at the federal level, state and local workforce development programs, and community colleges all aim at the less-than-four-year-college jobs.”
This postsecondary system is a valuable resource for older workers to tap when seeking new, less stressful opportunities. Older students are usually seeking a certificate that enables them to leave hard labor.
Rich Wagner, president of Dunwoody College of Technology in downtown Minneapolis, cites the example of electricians. The job calls for climbing up and down ladders, lugging equipment and installing wiring. As they wear down, older electricians often show up at Dunwoody and similar trade schools to earn a certificate that can qualify them to be, among other things, project estimators on electrical projects. “Former electricians are really good estimators,” Wagner said.
Self-employment is another option. Although the transition to self-employment after age 50 is more common among college-educated workers, 10 percent of older workers without a college degree are self-employed, according to Richard Johnson, labor economist at the Urban Institute in Washington. Again, although the income can be spotty, a big advantage of self-employment is flexibility.
Consider Joe Anania, who grew up racing and repairing motorcycles in Pittsburgh. When he had a family, he became an airline mechanic for the steady paycheck. He settled in the Twin Cities area, working 21 years as a mechanic for Northwest Airlines (now Delta Air Lines). After a failed strike in 2005, he didn’t want to return to Northwest so, reviving his youthful passion, he turned to restoring vintage motorcycles.
Now in his late 50s, he plans to stick with the venture for the long haul. “It’s nice being your own boss,” he says. “I can always back off and take less work.”
The movement among college-educated workers in their 50s and early 60s to leap into new careers rather than give up paid work is gaining momentum. But that’s also true for other older Americans. For those 65 to 69 with only a high school diploma, for example, the labor force participation rate for men was 30.3 percent in 2015, an increase from 26.7 percent in 1995. Women’s participation rose to 24.2 percent from 17.9 percent in the same period.
“It isn’t just the best-educated people who are extending their work lives,” Johnson said.
Studs Terkel, in his oral history of working life, didn’t smooth over the struggles of blue-collar workers. But he also emphasized the dignity and pride that come from work.
“It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor,” he wrote in the highly acclaimed book, “Working.” Even as hardworking bodies wear down, there is much to be said for continuing the search and avoiding torpor.