The Discovery Channel’s everyman promoter of unloved and unsanitary workplaces, Mike Rowe, traded his splattered overalls and goggles for a sharp suit and tie when he visited Capitol Hill last month. Testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the host of Dirty Jobs talked about the need for better perspectives on vocational professions in the United States.
He has a good point. America’s “dirtiest” jobs – primarily blue-collar and often requiring little more than a high school diploma – sometimes get short shrift in a nation where discussion of the “knowledge economy” and “global competitiveness” dominates editorial pages and chat shows. But this simplistic view of essential construction and maintenance jobs puts our country at a disadvantage, especially when one considers that green public works projects like wetland rehabilitation will need people willing to take on muddy, grubby (and sometimes gross) outdoor work.
What’s more, this cultural dismissal of low-skilled labor and vocational work causes us to ignore an important fact: compared with comparable opportunities for people with only a secondary education or an associate’s degree, these dirty jobs pay quite well. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the chart below, compiled using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The figure shows median hourly wages for 10 different professions in the New Orleans metropolitan area in May 2010. On the left hand side of the chart, we see pay information for five representative jobs in the region’s tourism sector – bartender, waitress, food preparer, cashier, and gaming service worker. Recreation and tourism is one of the most important sources of jobs for residents of the Mississippi River Delta, and the sector would likely be a competitor for the same pool of workers as delta restoration and hazard mitigation initiatives (i.e.) southeastern Louisianans with some college, a technical degree, a high school diploma, or no secondary school qualifications whatsoever.
To the right of the divider, we considered some of the “green jobs” that might be in high demand during an extensive program of wetland restoration – landscaper, construction worker, industrial machine operator, material mover. Some of these positions could require training in science or mathematics, but most of them, such as grounds keeping and truck driving, would not. We also included skilled blue-collar positions in pipe installation, since such expertise would be needed as conduits for water and sediment are completed in Louisiana’s wetland parishes.
We see that in many instances, the wages for these dirty jobs are higher than those for bartenders and food service workers. For instance, the median wage for construction laborers in the New Orleans area last spring ($12.21/hr.) was more than 46% higher than the median hourly wage for a waiter or waitress ($8.35/hr.). Because they don’t demand years (or even months) of training, these jobs would be immediately accessible to a large portion of the Gulf Coast’s labor pool, who could eagerly sign up for such work if money were set aside to get these projects started soon.
We’re not saying that the service employees of Bourbon Street should abandon their positions en masse and stream towards the swamps for jobs. However, we support Mr. Rowe and others like him who recognize that changing public perceptions of manual, hands-on labor will be necessary if our nation is going to rebuild its green infrastructure and resuscitate the battered hopes of its blue-collar workforce. For a state like Louisiana, whose coastal wetlands are in dire need of mud and river-borne sediment, Mike Rowe’s mantra that “dirt is not a demon” can’t just be co-opted as a catchy slogan for ecological initiatives. It should also be used to boost local labor participation and economic involvement in the dirty and demanding work of saving the Mississippi River Delta.