Have you ever met a veteran with blue collar cool? I don't mean a blue collar job. Lots of veterans have blue collar jobs. I want you to think of a veteran who has what author Ken Rusk calls "blue collar cool:" the ability to escape corporate America and make their own way on their own terms -- using blue collar skills.
In our neck of the woods, the veteran with the most blue collar cool is Chad. He was an Army special forces guy who transitioned into the building trade when he got out. He worked his way up to be the most in-demand project manager on upscale kitchen remodels. My neighbors all want Chad on their job so things are done right.
Blue Collar Cool After the Military
Life looks pretty good for Chad, too. Even though he works hard, he wields control of his time and talents that many would envy. Driving around in his truck, doing the parts of the remodel that he thinks are cool, living in his own upscale home with his wife and kids, Chad has blue collar cool because he is clearly happy in his work.
I want that for you, too. Could blue collar work be the path to your financial security and success after the military?
To find out more about how to make the blue collar thing work for veterans, I reached out to Rusk himself, who also has a lot of blue collar cool. He is a blue collar advocate who started his own career digging ditches. He is now a self-made millionaire and the author of "Blue Collar Cash: Love Your Work, Secure Your Future, and Find Happiness for Life."
9 Ways Veterans Can Use Blue Collar Skills
We talked about his experience hiring veterans and what you need to do during the military transition to make the most of a career in the trades. Here are the nine things veterans need to know to use blue collar skills to get the life they want most:
1. Break Free of the Military-Education Complex.
Just like President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation of the military-industrial complex, we now seem to be in the grips of a military-educational complex. It seems like the only high-status career path after the military is to use your GI Bill to graduate from college and work in an office. Do you really want to spend your days in a cubicle being told to "circle back around," "pivot," "table this discussion" and "take this offline"? Really?
Rusk notes that some jobs require going to college. "But if you are getting shoved into college like part of a cattle call, there is a much better way to come out the other end with a high-paying job. That's blue collar work," Rusk said.
2. Aim for Higher Pay.
If you grew up thinking blue collar workers always made less money than white collar workers, you might want to look at the statistics again.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, blue collar workers were already making better wages than they did in the years before COVID-19, mostly due to supply and demand as older blue collar workers retired. Now economic forecasters are saying that blue collar wages in areas like construction, transportation and manufacturing are growing at a faster rate than wages for white collar jobs.
3. Find a Place to Start.
To get one of these jobs, you need to find a good place to start. In the military, you probably learned a lot about what you want to do at work -- and a lot more about what you do not want to do. That's good data.
"People learn what they are good at and what they are not good at," Rusk said.
So make a list of things you did in the military (and things you do in your free time) at which you are skilled. These are not necessarily things that are fun. In fact, they probably are not fun. That is why they are skills.
The key to blue collar cool is identifying what kind of skills you do well and finding a place to do them for the greatest possible pay. After you have your list, check out a list of the 30 highest-paying blue collar jobs in America and apply your focus there.
4. Show Up Bright-Eyed.
You will be glad to know that "networking" in the trades does not happen in a hotel ballroom. Instead, veterans tell me they got their job "through a buddy." Or they saw an ad or a sign and applied. Those are good strategies, but they are not always enough to land a job with a really good employer.
"Show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," Rusk told me. "When I have someone show up [to the interview] early, bright look on their face, rarin' to go, I'm going to coddle that person like they are newfound gold."
Rusk is especially glad to see a veteran because of their work ethic and discipline. "We had a military guy show up the other day, and I said, 'Do whatever it takes to get him. Let's get this guy in the door.'"
5. Work for a Quicker Apprenticeship.
If you are that kind of hard-working, ambitious veteran, you might be surprised to find out that the learning curve has really shortened on apprenticeships, and the ability to rise in a company has gotten quicker. "Things like raises and bonuses and control of your destiny rise up quicker than they did in the old days," Rusk said.
6. Switch Jobs if You Want.
People used to hesitate to go into a blue collar job, because they were afraid to get stuck in a job they didn't like.
"Because everybody is hiring right now, you get the chance to job hop more than you have ever done in the last 40 years," Rusk said. "You could literally spend a few months as a carpenter's assistant and then a plumber's assistant, maybe go to a welding shop and see what you think."
7. Be a Contrarian Thinker.
While you are exploring your options, keep an eye out for the skill that everyone is looking for, but nobody has. Yes, there are shortages of electricians, plumbers and truckers, but there are a lot of those jobs available. What kind of jobs in your hometown have a long wait time?
In his area, Rusk has seen how skilled stonemasons are in high demand. "If you can figure out what is really needed in your neighborhood, that's where the money is going to be," Rusk said. "Do what others aren't doing and leapfrog into the better financial situation."
8.Take Your Mind Off Friday.
Rusk has hired more than 2,500 workers. He says that the one way people mess up a blue collar career is by focusing too much on Friday -- paying this week's bills with this week's paycheck and never getting ahead.
"All of us have the ability to be persistent; we just need a reason why," Rusk said.
So he started teaching his workers to do what he did and envision the future they want. They actually create vision boards with what they want in their personal lives and pull out the individual steps they need to take to get there. Then the individual workers sign and post it where everyone can see. "Surround yourself with like-minded people," Rusk said. "They have to own the mindset you own."
9. Score Some Blue Collar Cool.
"Sometimes I think that it isn't so much about what you do for a living, but what you do with what you do for a living that matters," Rusk said.
Blue collar cool turns out to be more about working to live, rather than living to work. It's about the life you earn for yourself and your family. Rusk says it is really about controlling your time, your team, your environment, and the quality and quantity of your work.
"There is an enormous amount of control a blue collar worker has that a white collar worker does not have. That's the hidden secret. That is the stand-back moment where you lean back on your shovel and you go, 'Wow.' There is an enormous amount of satisfaction in that."
Jacey Eckhart is Military.com's transition master coach. She is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Employment Project and on her website SeniorMilitaryTransition.com. Reach her at Jacey.Eckhart@Monster.com.
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