The Divide Isn't Right v. Left. It's Us Blue Collar Workers Fighting Elite Contempt | Opinion

They tell us a lot that we're living through a time of intense political polarization. You often hear politicians and pundits calling this the most divided time in American history since the Civil War. But for me and my fellow blue collar workers, it's clear that the real divide is not political or racial. It's about class.

It's the blue collar vs. white collar class divide that has never been bigger.

One of the main things that I hear from my fellow tradesmen is how the elite and white-collar professional class don't care about or respect the blue collar working class. This disrespect comes out in many ways, big and small. But you can hear it a lot in the political rhetoric coming out of the progressive side these days. It was there in the COVID conversation, how work-from-home white collar folks pushed for endless lockdowns and vaccine mandates, to be imposed on the working class whose labor they relied on to stay home. It's there in the way they talk about a universal basic income instead of high-paying trade jobs, and in the way they push for low-wage green jobs instead of union energy jobs.

But you can really see it in how they talk about college. Take the latest issue that progressives are pushing the Biden administration on—student loan cancelation. They want us taxpayers to pay off the student loans of the college educated, who on average make more money than those without a degree, and for whom the economy recovered almost immediately post-COVID. Then they have the audacity to tell us that it will help blue collar workers. They want us to enthusiastically agree to pay off their student loan debt, and then have the nerve to tell us it's in our interest as Americans.

That's what I mean about disrespect. And it pervades the entire conversation about college in America today. Consider the following exchange on Twitter recently, in which Ohio Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan expressed the view that we blue collar Americans generally ascribe to: "We really need to get away from the idea that every kid has to go to college. Normalize treating trade school as important as a 4 year degree," Congressman Ryan tweeted.

One of the responses to his tweet embodied exactly the kind of disrespect we feel all the time from college-educated elites: "imagine telling a kid, 'no you shouldn't shoot for your dreams because we need plumbers and welding.' We should have free community college and trade schools that way if a kid wants to go to go for a degree they can get a decent start."

Talk about the divide being boiled down to a simple exchange! The elitist attitude just hit me through my phone. This person looks down on skilled trades as if you have failed at life if you pursue them. A "decent start" means going for a degree. After all, what person would want their kid to be a tradesman!

A lot of people, actually. This mentality that you need a college degree to be worthy of respect is new—and out of touch. Less than a third of Americans have a degree. Are the rest of us just lost causes?

Of course not.

I could easily go into the earning potential of skilled trades, which is not insignificant. Yet despite the fact that a lot of us earn much more than adjunct professors and freelance journalists, the disrespect showed to these professions is getting worse and worse, though people in white collar jobs rely on our labor for, well, everything.

What is the end game of this contempt? How much longer can you continue to rely on the labor of skilled tradesfolk while looking down your nose at them, explicitly or implicitly?

But it just seems to be a growing trend. At the beginning of the coronavirus response, the first people to be laid off by the millions were blue-collar workers. By and large, white-collar workers and the elites never missed one paycheck. We were told to stay at home and save lives—unless of course you were trying to make ends meet by door dashing them their food or their Amazon packages that we delivered to them all while they collected their full salary over Zoom in their PJs. Sustain our white-collar life but don't you dare ask questions or complain!

Texas railway workers
CROSBY, TX - SEPTEMBER 04: Workers repair a section of Union Pacific railroad tracks that were washed away by flooding during Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey on September 4, 2017 in Crosby, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi August 25, has dumped nearly 50 inches of rain causing widespread flooding in Southeast Texas. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ironically, this contempt is growing while the economy's need for college degrees is shrinking; a new Occupational Requirements Survey found that 70 percent of jobs in the US economy require a high school education or less.

While the economy is desperately searching out workers to fill industrial roles, our government is looking to pay off student loans, incentivizing more college and even graduate school out of a misguided sense that there is something lowly about the trades.

So how do we get out of this cycle?

One way is getting engage with kids early. Schools should engage with vocational or apprenticeship programs starting in 8th grade. I'm a firm believer that boys and girls should be able to change their own oil, brakes, and tires by the time they graduate high school. Even if they don't go into a career as an auto mechanic, these young people will at least have some idea of a machine that will possibly be a part of their day to day lives forever. This could easily be extended to laying tiles, masonry, or making cabinets.

On top of that, we need to get rid of a mentality that's pervasive, that can be summed up as, "if the child is not studious then throw him/her into a trade as a last resort." That is a terrible stigma put on skilled trades.

And it's incorrect. I have a friend in Wisconsin who's a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. In his trade in particular, they need young people who are good at math and can read blueprints. This is not a skill for a student that is not interested in learning; it's a skill for a kid that could also have college in his or her future, or maybe a smart kid who just wants to work with his head and his hands. The same can be said for welders who have to read blueprints or engineers who have very specific measurements to be followed.

Tim Ryan is right: Let's stop telling every kid to go to a four-year college and let's normalize trade school. And for God's sake, stop expressing your contempt for the working class.

Charles Stallworth is a union railroad worker.

The views in this article are the writer's own.