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Minnesota manufacturing survey finds ‘stigma’ of blue-collar work a hurdle to attracting young people

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Stevie Nguyen, right, worked with Aaron Abbott, her classmate at Dunwoody College, to convert a bicycle into an electric drive as part of her final project.

When Stevie Nguyen graduated from Spring Lake Park High School three years ago, her mother laid it all out for her: She’d first attend a four-year college and later earn a law or medical degree.    

Her father cautioned her against pursuing “dirty” careers: blue-collar jobs, no matter how well-paying those positions might be.  

But Nguyen didn’t see herself sitting in a university classroom, wearing a doctor’s coat or analyzing legal cases. Instead, she found a career path in manufacturing, one that fit her love for designing and creating products.  

“My mom was like, ‘You have to become a doctor or lawyer,’ ” Nguyen said. “And I was like, ‘No, I want to work. I want to make money and I want to build things.’ ”  

Nguyen isn’t alone. According to a recent survey conducted by the Minneapolis-based consulting firm Enterprise Minnesota, many parents and teachers are pushing young people to attend traditional 4-year universities in pursuit of professions that are generally considered more prestigious  — despite the fact that many manufacturing workers are well-paid and in-demand. 

“Over the last generation, manufacturing has not been appreciated for the kind of careers it creates for young people,” said Bob Kill, Enterprise Minnesota’s president and CEO. “There are good-paying jobs; there are great careers that people can have.” 

The attitude toward manufacturing jobs is just one of the findings of Enterprise Minnesota's “State of Manufacturing” survey, which collected data from 400 manufacturing executives to shed light on the opportunities and challenges facing the industry in Minnesota. The report will be presented Tuesday night before state officials and business leaders at the Minneapolis Convention Center. 

Among other things, the report highlights the positive outlook that many manufacturing executives in Minnesota have about their own companies, even if they're skeptical about the economy. The report found that 90 percent of the executives are confident about their companies’ financial prospects, the highest level seen in all eight years the survey has been conducted.

Manufacturer confidence levels
Response by manufacturers to the question “From a financial perspective, how do you feel right now about the future for your company?”
Source: Enterprise Minnesota

Yet the executives are less optimistic about the state’s economy this year: 48 percent of them predict the industry’s economic status will remain flat, while 38 percent expect an economic expansion and 15 percent say the state is heading into recession. 

Manufacturer economic expectations
Response by manufacturers to the question “Thinking about the upcoming year, in 2016, do you anticipate economic expansion, a flat economy or a recession?”
Source: Enterprise Minnesota

The report also states that the majority of manufacturers predict the number of their employees will stay the same (66 percent), or grow (29 percent) in 2016. The growth of the workforce in this year’s survey is exactly the same as last year’s.

Manufacturer workforce expectations
Response by manufacturers to the question “In the next 12 months, does your company expect to grow or shrink the size of its workforce, or will it stay the same?”
Source: Enterprise Minnesota

In previous years, Enterprise Minnesota researchers interviewed only manufacturing leaders for the annual survey. This year, the organization also collected the voices of 40 college students pursuing manufacturing careers at Dunwoody College of Technology, Alexandria Technical and Community College as well as Anoka Technical and Community College.

The students were asked why many other people their age aren’t interested in manufacturing degrees from two-year colleges. The reason, said students: Kids are often discouraged by their parents and teachers.

“When I was in high school, there was kind of a stigma attached,” noted one of the students in the report. “There was a stigma attached to the people who were crafts people, who were hands-on, who were going for the blue-collar types of things and such.”

Another student added: “Your teachers just stress your whole life that you need to go to a four-year because that’s the best education you can get. They don’t ever think about these places as much, except for our technology teachers.”

Because many people aren’t joining the industry, manufacturers’ greatest need today continues to be entry-level qualified employees and those with technical training and experience.

The reason Enterprise Minnesota collects such data and produces an annual survey, Kill explained, is to raise awareness about the industries among the communities, educators and parents. 

“The thing for parents to understand is that some of these are really well-paying positions,” Kill added. “I’d say the average pay for these kids coming out of Dunwoody is between $45,000 and $65,000 and $70,000 to start. So, these are very good paying jobs that can create careers.”

Bob Kill, president and CEO of Enterprise Minnesota.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Bob Kill, president and CEO of Enterprise Minnesota.

That’s what Nguyen has found. Despite, her parents’ warnings, Nguyen decided two years ago to enroll at Dunwoody College of Technology to pursue an associate of science degree in engineering drafting and designing. On track to graduate this spring, she already has several employment possibilities lined up. “I’ve gotten many job offers,” she said. “I actually had to decline some.”

Over the years, her parents gradually shifted their view about Nguyen’s career choice. They’ve been supportive of their daughter’s career goals and dreams. “I tell them my projects,” she said. “They’re quite impressed now.”

When Nguyen told her mother about the job offers, she asked: “Wow! You’re going to end up getting more money than me?” 

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 05/03/2016 - 11:54 am.

    The article should be a required read for all high school seniors

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 05/03/2016 - 02:35 pm.

      But also this


      Or, to get to the nitty gritty:
      We thus conclude that an important share of the current low rate of employment in the U.S. can be understood as a consequence of the ongoing decline in manufacturing, as opposed to factors directly related to the Great Recession. Because of this, we do not expect the employment of displaced manufacturing workers to permanently respond to many of the temporary policies discussed by policymakers in the last few years. Just like the temporary housing boom, temporary tax credits and temporary increases in government spending are unlikely to permanently alter the demand for workers without a college degree.

      I’m not suggesting that there aren’t good, long-term manufacturing jobs. And those with technical skills in manufacturing are still in demand. But students need to know what’s out there.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 05/03/2016 - 12:00 pm.

    Is anyone surprised that teachers look down on blue collar jobs?

    Schools have eliminated teaching the trades in grades 10-12. My concern with our state spending billions and our nation spending trillions on education, is we are not preparing 18 year old young adults for the workforce. That falls into the lap of the Teachers Union who are much more interested in having a diverse curriculum than teaching math, reading, writing and problem solving.

    In the real world of getting and holding a job (not the teachers view of being protected by huge union) if you do not add an asset/value you don’t get the job or get replaced by someone who does add value.

    Sad that teachers turn their noses up on jobs that pay between $35,000 and $70,000 for qualified young men and women. The big question is, are our public schools there to help graduates be prepared for jobs, college and for life after High School or teach a diverse curriculum ?

    • Submitted by Norm Champ on 05/03/2016 - 02:17 pm.

      Your hate for the Teacher’s Union is obvious

      …but I fail to see how your bias supports any of your statements.

      When I attended HS I had 6 years of various shop courses. I considered that a “Diverse Curriculum”, and so did the all the teachers of all of my classes. I also had an English class devoted to film making and criticism, several years of art, all have been eliminated for my boys who graduated in the 2010’s. These all added to a well rounded education (and a realization I shouldn’t pursue employment “working with my hands”).

      I strongly believe returning to a diverse curriculum will create a much better student and societal experience, but do not think the teacher’s union is the reason school districts went away from it.

    • Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 05/03/2016 - 02:36 pm.


      This criticism is grossly misdirected. Teachers have little, if any, say in the curriculum they teach within a given class, much less which classes are offered at a school. I’m especially certain that the teachers who taught wood shop, metal shop, etc. were not too enthusiastic about eliminating these courses.

      I agree with you that more of these offerings should be available to students, and that schools should help graduates be prepared for jobs, college, and life after high school. I don’t, however, see the contradiction between these goals and having available a diverse curriculum that allows for a broad range of useful knowledge, ideas, and disciplines to be passed on to the next generation.

      Education MN has its problems along with its benefits and I certainly don’t agree with everything in their agenda, but don’t paint teachers with such a broad brush by accusing them all of willfully steering students away from blue collar jobs and leaving them unprepared for life. It’s simply a misleading generalization.

    • Submitted by Brian Scholin on 05/03/2016 - 02:58 pm.

      Don’t Blame Teachers – or Unions – for This

      I was a teacher of Physics and advanced Math courses, but I and other teachers worked hard to implement related courses designed for those more interested in trades than college. My Principles of Technology and Technical Math courses were well received by students, parents, other teachers, and the community as a whole. But not so much by School Board and administration.

      They cost a fair amount to operate, once the grants ran out, and didn’t viisibly contribute much to standardized test score improvement – which seemed to be the reason for any class’s existence, in their minds. That lack of commitment to the value those classes provided caused their discontinuance a few years after I was moved to other tasks.

      In our case, it was surely not the teachers or union that was to blame. It was the deification of standardized tests that I hold primarily responsible.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/04/2016 - 01:46 pm.

      Its funny when

      Conservatives who have been screaming that schools sticking to Readin’, Writin’ and ‘rythmatic so they could cut costs, start complaining about there being no job training in the schools. Conservatives squawk about personal responsibility, but are very good at assigning blame for the problems they and their policies create. Well, its not funny ha ha funny, but funny in a weird way.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/03/2016 - 12:28 pm.

    Saint Paul TVI

    I attended Saint Paul Technical Vocational Institute. When I returned for evening courses about a year later, the “Vocational” had been dropped, it being a dirty word (St. Paul Technical Institute). Later, “Institute” was dropped in favor of “College” (St. Paul Technical College). We speculated that the increases in our evening class tuition was due to the signs being changed so frequently. That was even before “Technical” was dropped, leaving it as Saint Paul College.

    Oddly, some of those who would never have their son or daughter become a plumber are those who also think that plumbers make too much. But when you turn on a light or flush your toilet, you can silently thank a vo-tech school, whether or not it’s now referred to as a college.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/03/2016 - 01:51 pm.

    Social class and the trades

    What the word “stigma” tries to describe is the ugliness of social class thinking. Many white collar people will never think blue collar workers their equal and that attitude cuts across the generations.

    When blue collar workers organized and bargained for higher wages and benefits, for what is often hard, dirty and dangerous work, it generated feelings of envy among white collar workers, who think their higher education is a God-given right to make piles of money and run society. Very successful white collar workers can establish a legacy that eases the way for many future generations, while blue collar workers and their children are likely to struggle to get respect.

    Too many of the most talented children are unable to afford college, as income has shift from people to who do the real work of the country, which employers are constantly trying to squeeze wages and offf source jobs to places where workers live in misery.

    The problem is not with the blue collar workers, who tend to be hard working and not asking for handouts, but with white collar workers particularly in management who are the source for the stigma. It is an ugly part of our culture that puts a lie to the idea of “equal opportunity.”

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/04/2016 - 09:11 am.

      The Stigma

      Part of the stigma also comes from blue collar workers themselves. When they speak of upward mobility, or a better future for their children, what they often mean is hoping their children will be able to attend college and get a white collar job.

  5. Submitted by Sally Sorensen on 05/04/2016 - 07:52 am.

    Sample of 40?

    This is giving a lot of cred to a survey of 40 students–and the source’s mention high “starting wages” does not seem to be have been checked against actual starting salaries.

    Let me help. Try DEED’s data: http://mn.gov/deed/data/data-tools/graduate-employment-outcomes/

    One of the key changes in vocational/technical education in Minnesota isn’t mentioned here: post-secondary vocational-technical education was tuition free to high school grads until the late 1970s.

    Perhaps those manufacturers whining about the feels could put their heads together and come up with a plan to replicate that bargain for young people (PESO would bring in the high school students). My guess is that the chance of being student-debt free at the start of a trained career would pretty wipe out any stigma about a blue-collar career.

    As to how these negative attitudes festered, review the more recent history of “school to work” initiatives in Minnesota. The right in Minnesota deplored these programs, pushing instead a classical liberal arts agenda for all high school students.

    See: http://edwatch.org/pdfs/STW%20Report%20Aug%202004.pdf for an example.

    This successful drive by the same folks who killed the Profiles of Learning chilled interest in funding high school vocational-technical education for a decade. What’s fascinating now is to watch Minnesota pols blame liberals and teachers unions for the “go to college” mentality.

    • Submitted by Norm Champ on 05/04/2016 - 12:17 pm.

      Thanks for the facts Sally

      I’d like to add that there is a huge difference between the “answer” of replacing in school “Voch-Ed” with options at off campus Voch ed programs. While I’d think the Vocational Colleges could offer more robust course work, they required HS students leaving their HS to attend, thereby eliminating many students who were luke warm about the opportunity. While the Vo-Tech option was great for focused students who had chosen their path; it didn’t provide the tradition of “shop classes” for everyone and the subsequent exposure to alternatives to traditional college. I feel this lack of exposure to learning beyond the book, has lead to the lack of interest by HS students in trades. They just aren’t aware those options may be something they’d like.

  6. Submitted by Rod Loper on 05/04/2016 - 10:13 am.

    I agree.

    It is time to stop assigning blame and fix this terrible mistake. If we had focused on the interests, talents and abilities of the individual student and provided career developmental counseling
    in our schools we would be far ahead on this problem.

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