Dean Barber

The Next Big Blue Collar Job

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on March 26, 2017 at 12:13 am

Economic developers are people whose jobs are to essentially stir things up and make things happen. Those “things” pertain to economic activity and growth, either on a state, regional or local level.

They are all too often obsessed with job creation as that is how they are typically judged, hired and fired. And while that is not a completely fair and accurate barometer, most of them realize that’s just the way it is.

I used to be an economic developer before becoming a consultant. Today, my clients fall into two camps – companies and communities. I help companies find optimal locations from which to operate (an art and a science to itself called site selection). I also help communities essentially find themselves, in order to create a better environment for job and wealth creation.

Economic developers tend to look at consultants like me, not only as sources for corporate investment projects that could land in their communities, which makes some sense, but also as all-knowing gurus concerning everything about the economy.

And we (the consultants) often opine as if we are these all-knowing gurus, and I am as guilty of that as the next person.  But the truth is we are the canaries in the coal mine. Some of us may having a somewhat better sense on how the economy is faring, but few of us are trained economists.

A Worthwhile Traveling Road Show

I tell you all this because Consultant Connect, a worthwhile traveling road show that connects economic developers to site selection consultants, rolled into Dallas last week, and being that I was in town, I attended.

These are almost always good events. I get to make new acquaintances and reaffirm old ones. I get to hear other consultants give their views, which more-often-than not, are pretty accurate and informative.

During the initial round-table discussion, (which was actually a square-table discussion), I offered that business confidence and consumer confidence are at multi-year highs, in part because of  President Trump’s pro-business agenda in lowering corporate taxes, deregulating industry, and enacting a big infrastructure spending program.

But will these things actually happen? Well, I really don’t know, and I said as much. Now how often do you hear a consultant say that?

The way I see it, when a Republican House, which had previously voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act more than 60 times, cannot agree on a repeal and replacement plan backed by the White House and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., then you have to wonder.

Trump and Ryan say they will now turn their attention to the first major re-write of the tax code in more than 30 years. But they will have to do it without the momentum of victory on health care.

Just as important, the loss on health care will deprive Republicans of $1 trillion in tax cuts.

The stock market’s spurt of 10 percent since Election Day is due partly to the Trump agenda and an expanding global economy. That underlying pro-growth optimism remains for now, but if tax reform fails, that could change in a hurry.

I know what I don’t know. Predicting how the Trump Agenda will fare is something that I will let others do. It’s important to the economy and the fruits that may or may not come as a result. I just don’t know how this worm is going to turn.

But Here’s What I Do Know (Or At Least Suspect)

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I have written quite a bit about the digitization of manufacturing. It is happening, albeit I think we are still in the early stages of a new digital machine age that will both destroy jobs and create jobs.

In my blog of Feb. 12 entitled The Jobs Will Change and So Will We, I mentioned that McKinsey Global Institute stated in a recent report that companies on average are less than 40 percent digitized, including everything from deployments of digital tools in their supply chains to customer-facing products and services, meaning there’s a long ways to go., a non-profit that promotes computer science,  reports there are currently more than 500,000 open computing jobs, in every industry sector in the United States, from manufacturing to banking, from agriculture to healthcare, but only about 50,000 computer science graduates are becoming available every year.

Coding is Key

I suggested at Consultant Connect that the next big blue-collar job very well might be coding. In simple terms, coders write the instructions that tell computers what to do in programming languages that include SQL, Java, JavaScript, C# and Python.

The good news is that you don’t have to go to a four-year college to learn coding. Not only are more employers making code learning more accessible, but more and more schools are now introducing coding, even down the elementary school level.

An entire “coding bootcamp” industry has emerged out of a need for a more efficient and effective way of preparing people for the huge number of unfilled jobs in tech, which traditional higher education programs haven’t been able to address.

This level of education and exposure to coding won’t necessarily give these future coders all the knowledge to create complex AI algorithms, but it will be enough to qualify them for well-paying, reliable jobs in most IT departments.

A Shop Class for Coding

In short, coding has and will become more of a vocational skill, and as such it can and should be taught in vocational classes in high schools and community colleges.

When I was a kid, I took shop class in middle school, where I learned some basic wood-working and carpentry skills. (I think it was mandatory.) To the same end, why not a shop class for computer programming, a skill that will only grow in demand.

The national average salary for IT jobs is double the national average for all jobs: $81,000 annually.

Roughly half of the jobs in the top income quartile — those paying $57,000 or more per year — are in occupations that commonly require applicants to have at least some computer coding knowledge, according to an analysis of 26 million U.S. online job postings released in 2016 by job market analytics firm Burning Glass and Oracle Academy.

Demystifying Coding

It’s now a matter of demystifying coding as a profession that only gifted kids who go to a four-year university are capable of learning. Once people see that coding is a vocational skill that they, too, can learn, well, that will open doors to employment in a digital machine age.

Bit Source, a software development company in Eastern Kentucky,  has been hiring former coal miners, yes, you read that right, to do coding.

“We didn’t think that was that big of a jump,” Co-owner Rusty Justice said of the miners in the interview with the Lexington Herald Leader. “Daggone, these are high-tech workers that just get dirty.”

Justice describes himself on the Bit Source website as an  “unapologetic hillbilly,” who “loves Jesus, his family, baseball, and all things Appalachia.” Daggone, I would love the meet this man.

About four months ago, IBM Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty said her company plans to hire about 25,000 people in the U.S. and invest $1 billion over the next four years. Ms. Rometty said many technology jobs don’t require an advanced degree and she encouraged government investment in vocational education and training.

“We are hiring because the nature of work is evolving,” Rometty wrote in an Op-Ed in USA Today. “What matters most is that these employees – with jobs such as cloud computing technicians and services delivery specialists – have relevant skills, often obtained through vocational training.”

Coding and IT jobs can be, really should be the next big blue-collar jobs. But that will only happen if we as a nation get off our duff and offer the vocational training.

Keep On Pushing

As you can probably tell, I am not always so shy about giving my opinion. And while sometimes I may get it wrong or only half-right, I don’t believe I am wrong in stating that there is not enough emphasis today on vocational education. This is an area where we have just fallen down as a country.

I frequently come across community colleges that offer few vocational courses in any given place. I have especially seen this in rural communities where I have done economic development consulting. The vocational offerings are often slim to none, which puts a community at a huge disadvantage.

And I continue to meet local economic developers who confide in me that they do not have the kind of deep professional working relationships they would like to have with the presidents of their community colleges. (Plant managers have told me the same.)

To them I say, “You got to bridge that gap. You got to keep on pushing. Don’t give up. Workforce development is key.”

A Safe Bet

Of course, there is always the tendency in vocational education and planning of any sort of “fighting the last war” — pursuing a strategy that has been successful in the past but is no longer as relevant in the present or the future.

Knowing all the jobs in the future will be impossible, but it’s probably a safe bet that most will be based on digital technologies, which means coding is a good foundation.

One day, computer programming as we know it may become a vocation that is not in demand, one of peripheral importance. But until then, the demands of the job marketplace should be faithfully followed by educators, economic developers, policymakers, parents, and students, really everyone.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. BBA helps companies and communities. Mr. Barber is available as a keynotes speaker and can be reached at

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