BLUE-COLLAR jobs are growing at their fastest rate in more than 30 years, helping fuel a hiring boom in many small towns and rural areas that are strong supporters of President Donald Trump ahead of November’s mid-term elections.
Jobs in goods-producing industries – mining, construction, and manufacturing – grew 3.3 per cent in the year preceding July, the best rate since 1984, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Blue collar jobs, long a small and shrinking part of the US economy, are now growing at a faster clip than those in America’s much larger service economy. Many factors collided to produce the blue collar boom. Some are tied to short-term boom-and-bust cycles, but others may endure.
The rapid hiring in blue collar sectors is delivering benefits to areas that turned out heavily for Trump in the 2016 election, according to the Brookings Institution, a shift from earlier in this expansion, when large and mid-sized cities enjoyed most of the gains.
The biggest drivers of the blue-collar hiring surge are the rebound in oil prices, the need to rebuild after disasters such as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, and rising demand generated by a growing economy.
“I could work from sunup to sundown seven days a week,” said Steve Klebenow, a 30-year-old who owns and operates Gallatin Valley Welding in Churchill, Montana, a town of fewer than 900 people that had only two roads, one of them dirt, when he was growing up.
As wealthy families from California, Oregon and Washington flood into the area looking for mountain views and a lower cost of living, the region is transforming, and Klebenow is helping to build it.
Klebenow started welding at the tail end of the housing boom, while he was still in high school. After the recession hit, he went to North Dakota to weld pipes and build bridges in the oil fields. He reckons his part of the country is a few years behind the economic cycle on the East Coast.
“All I know right now is that we’re all busy. It’s going to stay that way for a couple years, and then it’s going to go back down,” he said at the end of another 12-hour day.
Job gains in smaller towns and rural areas accelerated last year, and continued to build in early 2018.
Rural employment grew at an annualised rate of 5.1 per cent in the first quarter. Smaller metro areas grew 5.0 per cent. That’s significantly larger than the 4.1 per cent growth seen in large urban areas that recovered earlier from the Great Recession, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program of a separate set of Labor Department data released on Wednesday.
In the past year, the economy has added 656,000 blue-collar jobs, compared to 1.7 million added in the services sector. But the rate of growth in blue-collar jobs is speeding up, while service-sector job growth has hovered around 1.3 per cent over the past year.
“Small towns and rural America are finally winning a little,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings, but he added: “Very little of the favourable economic shift likely owes to President Trump’s erratic flailing and bluster.”
In a sign of revitalisation in an area previously hit hard by the decline of coal and steel production, the Appalachian town of Ashland, Kentucky, recently broke ground on a new aluminum mill. Owned by Braidy Industries, the mill will eventually employ over 500 people.
Hiring has already started for construction positions, and the local community college is training people for the high-tech manufacturing jobs.
“I had 24 cities and towns bid for this project. Ashland was by far the poorest of them all,” said Craig Bouchard, the chief executive of Braidy Industries. “I chose Appalachia for one reason: They have eight time more available metal-working families than any other place in the country. I’ve already got 7,000 job applications.”
For Michael Tackett, who has lived in eastern Kentucky all his life, the factory offers an unexpected second chance.
“This is massive for us. We’ve been in an economic downturn for years, actually decades, but this could bring an economic boom to the area,” said Tackett, who is program coordinator of the Advanced Integrated Technology program at Ashland Community and Technical College.
The good times might not last. Some economists warn the long-term trends still favor big cities and digitally focused industries. There are signs growth may be tapering off in some blue-collar sectors: Home sales have cooled this summer and manufacturers are fearful Trump’s trade war will erase their competitive edge.