An issue that repeatedly comes up in political campaigns and policy debate is that blue collar jobs, particularly those in manufacturing, have continued to decline sharply over the last two decades.
Unfortunately for those who work or used to work in those jobs, it’s unlikely any politician or policy can stop the trend, which is fueled by advances in technology.
The Decline of Blue Collar Jobs
Numbers from the Center for Economic and Policy Research clearly show the trend.
Those center’s findings include the following.
- In 1970, blue collar jobs made up 31.2% of all non-farm employment in the United States. In 2016, that number had dropped to 13.6%.
- The total number of blue collar jobs has dropped from 24.9 million in 1979 to 19.6 million in 2016
- The number of jobs in manufacturing dropped every year from 1998 to 2010. While there has been a slight uptick in recent years, in 2016 there were just 12.3 million blue collar jobs in manufacturing, compared to about 25 million in 1970 and more than 17 million in 2000.
Political rhetoric is one thing, but the numbers clearly show a decline in blue collar jobs over the past 50 years, through both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations.
And the disruption of technology reaches far beyond manufacturing. Workers in call centers can be replaced by artificial intelligence voices. Uber might have disrupted traditional taxis, but self-driving cars will disrupt both. Meanwhile, professionals in creative positions are grappling with new technology not necessarily replacing them, but working alongside them.
But while the evolution of industry has killed some jobs, it also has opened up opportunities for blue collar workers looking for a new path to a steady career.
Use of Data Growing
As blue-collar opportunities have dwindled, those involving technology and data have exploded. The trend shows no sign of slowing either, as more businesses, nonprofits and government agencies turn to data to drive decisions.
The volume of data is expected to continue to grow, partially due to innovations such as The Internet of Things. That involves placing sensors on objects in the real world and collecting data on their movements and activities, substantially increasing the amount of data available.
This will also lead to more ways to analyze data. And that leads to what some, including high-profile Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban, regard as the future of blue collar jobs in the U.S.: data tagging.
What Is Data Tagging?
While automation and machine learning can replace many of the “human jobs” in blue collar workplaces, there still exists a need for people to work in these environments. One of these areas is taking raw data, cleaning it up and correctly labeling it for use by machines.
Called data tagging or data labeling, it requires workers to organize data in a way that machines can “ingest,” Guru Banavar, head of the IBM team that created the AI system Watson, told Tech Republic.
Banavar said a large part of analytical jobs consist of cleaning up, organizing and labeling data. He foresees more blue collar jobs created to handle these tasks.
Cuban sees it the same way. The Texas entrepreneur has criticized President Donald Trump for focusing on bringing back manufacturing jobs. Cuban said more blue collar workers need to be moved into the technology industry with jobs such as data tagging, according to CNBC.
For machine learning to prove effective, data must be labeled and tagged correctly. Those jobs are “the equivalent of low-end skilled labor today…It’s going to be the job of the future,” Cuban said.
Potential jobs in data for those without a college degree goes beyond tagging. Other jobs include coding and programming, both of which can be learned without earning a four-year degree.
What can lead more people out of the factories and into data and tech? An increased emphasis on de-mystifying technology with high school classes on coding, tagging and other data-related vocations. The truth about coding is that most coders are not employed by Silicon Valley giants or designing the next chat platform that will sell for billions. They’re doing website maintenance for car dealers in Ohio or health insurance companies in Texas and their work, while intellectually stimulating and important to their employers, is not groundbreaking or beyond the capabilities of a properly trained blue collar worker.