I had a wonderful childhood growing up in a typical middle-class American family living in New England in the 1960s. My dad, a World War II veteran who studied on the G.I. Bill to be a chemist and colorist at the Rhode Island School of Design, worked as a dyer in a textile mill. I am not sure that job exists any more.
As far as I could tell, we never wanted for anything. Coming from a French/Portuguese family, food was important to us and on Saturdays my dad and I made the rounds of the butcher shop, green grocer, bakery, dairy, fish market — and of course the obligatory visit to the grocery store for paper goods.
The “Week of the 4th,” all mills closed for the July Independence Day holiday and our family, like the others in factory towns, piled everyone into the car and went on summer vacation. Some years we went to Cape Cod, other years to visit family in Quebec, and as we got older, to historic sites such as the Smithsonian Museum and the Liberty Bell.
My mother didn’t work and drove us most places. We went to private elementary school; I had piano lessons, while my sisters took dance and guitar lessons.
It was my dad’s early career in manufacturing that gave me the childhood I value. He went on to become an entrepreneur as the textile industry migrated South, but those early years shaped my own career path. I co-founded a laser machine tool and contract manufacturing company that helped high school graduates and veterans find opportunities they didn’t even realize existed for them.
My company was ahead of its time but now more and more blue-collar jobs have morphed as a new era of digital transformation has taken hold not only in manufacturing, but also in industries as far afield from one another as jewelry making and film production.
After the 2016 election, IBM CEO Ginny Rometty implored President-elect Donald Trump to bring back manufacturing, but with the highly skilled “New Collar” jobs America needed for prosperity. The term struck me as the perfect encapsulation of today’s careers, plucked directly from science fiction: robotics programmer, 3D printing operator, CAD designer, predictive analytics specialist, laser machining service technician and more.
Many New Collar jobs do not require a college degree and Ms. Rometty says that as much as one-third of IBM’s manufacturing positions do not require any degree. The world is changing as technology has become an integral part of our daily lives, and New Collar jobs naturally tap into those digital skills.
There is a wonderful example of the digital trajectory that is transforming our cities and towns in Youngstown, Ohio. Traditional factories lie dormant, neglected and overgrown, but down the street, a storefront is humming with 3D printing machines. The Obama administration formed the first additive manufacturing institute, America Makes — and located it in downtown Youngstown, the heart of manufacturing territory. This public-private partnership is transforming the national dialogue on fabrication and creating a myriad of New Collar opportunities for people everywhere.
I strongly feel that the success of 21st century industries is directly dependent upon the people who have the skills to work in New Collar careers. We need to celebrate and encourage these digital skills, because they are the key to the resurgence of our communities. Only when people can support their families, enjoy the fruits of their labor and feel valued in their work will all children share the happy childhood I enjoyed because of my dad’s career in manufacturing.
The women I selected to be featured in the New Collar Workforce issue of UNUM Magazine bring to life what a New Collar job means. Please enjoy the individual stories of their journeys to re-shape the world using digital tools.
Author, The New Collar Workforce
Founder, The New Collar Network