Are You a Blue-Collar Business Owner who “Doesn’t Get No Respect”?

Excerpted with permission from Blue Collar Proud: 10 Principles for Building a Kickass Business You Love by Carter Harkins and Taylor Hill 

Jason was a blue-collar business owner who was called to do a job in a prominent doctor’s home. As you might imagine, it was a large brick house on a tree-lined street in a well-to-do neighborhood. He parked his van at the curb, walked up to the large doors, and rang the bell. When it was answered, Jason introduced himself to the doctor’s wife, entered the home, and was led to where the problem was. Without wasting any time, he pulled a flashlight out of his bag, crawled into a tight space, and got to work troubleshooting the problem.  

Just about the time he spotted the issue, Jason heard voices out in the room behind him, and quickly realized that the doctor and his teenage son were standing in the doorway. They must have thought they were out of earshot, but as their whispers continued he heard the doctor say to his son, “You see Franklin, if you don’t go to college and get a degree, this is the kind of work you’re going to spend the rest of your life doing.”  

Jason’s heart skipped a beat. Was he hearing this right? Did this man really think that little of the service he was providing? He stayed put, acted like he was still troubleshooting the system, but continued to listen. 

“I know you’re young and you may not know what you want to do with the rest of your life, but you’ve got to get your chemistry and algebra grades up, or you may already be limiting your options. I don’t want you to end up regretting the rest of your life.” 

What the hell?! Jason’s mind was racing now. He was embarrassed and he didn’t even know why. It’s true, he had never had ambitions to be a doctor or a lawyer, but he had always had decent grades in school. His father had been a successful dentist, but Jason always preferred being outdoors, working with his hands, and using his brain and tools to solve the kinds of problems that he was currently solving for this uppity doctor. He was a business owner, for goodness’ sake, and he had plans to really grow it big. But for the first time, a seed of doubt crept up like the doctor behind him. Was his own father secretly disappointed in his choice of a career? And who did this guy think he was to use Jason’s chosen career as some kind of lesson about academic underachievement? 

For the next hour, as he got replacement parts off his truck and installed and tested the system, he felt his heart breaking under the weight of a thousand conflicting emotions. Anger flashed, as the words the doctor had spoken seared themselves into his mind. But the anger was followed by sadness, thinking about how miserable that young boy must be growing up under the thumb of such a jerk. He wanted to pull the kid aside and tell him he shouldn’t listen to his old man, and that his father had it all wrong. College isn’t for everyone, and going to college doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a happy life or find something worth doing for the rest of your life. He wanted to scream at the doctor and tell him that he had gone to college and gotten a fancy degree, thank you very much, and after all of that, he STILL chose this career! He actually enjoyed what he did for a living, and how dare he suggest that he was some kind of second-class human being who must do what he does because he couldn’t hack it in the “real world.” But mostly, he just wanted to get this service call over with, collect his money, and get as far away from the humiliation and judgment he felt had been unfairly heaped upon him. He felt dirty for some reason, but a quick glance at his uniform told him that he wasn’t. He couldn’t even look the customer in the eye as he took his credit card and swiped it. The entire time, the jerk never even bothered to ask his name. One phrase kept playing in Jason’s head, over and over: “You don’t know me. You have no idea who I am. You say those things, but you don’t even know me.” 

Jason had one more service call to make that day, and as it happened, it was in the same neighborhood. But after what he had just been subjected to, he certainly didn’t feel like keeping it. Obviously, the people on this side of town all felt that he was barely worthy of being in their homes; they just needed him to do a job that they couldn’t do for themselves.  

Back behind the wheel of his truck, he entered the next address in his GPS, let out a frustrated sigh, and pulled away. Normally he would have called ahead to the next customer, but what did it matter? They obviously didn’t deserve his respect if they weren’t willing to give him the same thing in return. He would just get there, do the job, and get the hell out. In fact, maybe he just needed to wear a thicker skin from now on…Yeah, that sounded pretty reasonable to him. 

And with that, a new mantra formed, one that would keep him safe and focused on the work no matter who he had to do it for: “It’s just a job,” he told himself. “It’s just a job. It’s just a job…” 

This is the problem. This is the perception. This is the why behind Blue Collar Proud.  

Our society, and even some blue-collar business owners and employees, have accepted the perception that blue-collar work consists of dirty and menial jobs performed by uneducated people who have nothing else to offer. We’ve created a culture that says blue-collar work is somehow less dignified, less necessary, less worthy than white-collar work. But it wasn’t always this way. 

The term blue-collar first showed up in 1924 in an Iowa newspaper article. It was merely a reference to the blue shirts frequently worn by workers in skilled trade jobs. It wasn't used as a class distinction; there was no derogatory or demeaning attitude intended by the author. It wasn't used as a way to rank importance, as in white-collar and then, far below that, blue-collar. It was just a useful and accurate shorthand for a very large and respectable segment of the workforce. In those days, hard work was still good work, and certainly just as good as any other. 

Things would change, however. The 1930s, while characterized by the Great Depression, still saw the rise of many important new technologies in manufacturing and aviation. It was these new technologies that would aid in an economic recovery and fuel the growth of the next 40 years. The new jobs of this era were plentiful in fields requiring specialized study, such as management, engineering, and other applied sciences. This demand meant that, for the first time, higher education was becoming a useful, accessible, and affordable career path for the middle class. 

The shifted focus to higher education didn't start out as a malicious plan to belittle hard work. In fact it was the hardest working among us -- the factory and field laborers, the miners and the farmers -- who strongly urged their kids, like any parents wanting better for their children, to forsake the hard life they had known, and seek the glistening new American Dream made possible through an affordable university diploma. Perhaps these parents were a little too convincing in their arguments. Maybe in their zeal for ensuring the bright futures of their kids, they oversold the promise and discouraged any thought of a career outside of a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or upper-level management professional.  

No one knows for sure exactly where it started, but for the first time, class distinctions, generalizations, and ugly stereotypes began being made about and attached to blue collar jobs and workers. In small, incremental, and almost imperceptible ways, these skilled and worthwhile jobs began to be viewed as less than, or fall-back jobs. Words and phrases like “underachiever” and “not college material” began seeping into the vocabulary of the primary education system.  

Every society in every era gets to define for themselves what “normal” and “valuable” looks like.  New cultural norms and values don't appear overnight; they usually take generations to develop, as we slowly let go of one idea or attitude that no longer serves us well, and try on another in its place. For the most part, this slow march of progress has benefitted humanity. But there are also times when it hasn’t benefitted us. This shift away from valuing blue-collar work has weakened our society over time, undermining progress, and stigmatizing some of the most valuable and meaningful career opportunities available. 

Our current society is only starting to wake up to the fact that we have done ourselves a great disservice by painting blue-collar work as somehow less dignified than other types of work.  

People like Mike Rowe are leading the charge in restoring dignity to the skilled trades, and it's no small thing he is attempting to do. Through his Mike Rowe Works Foundation, he is championing a new, young cultural mindset that prizes vocational skills learned in a non-university setting. He is changing the conversation by confronting old assumptions about the role of education, and outlining an alternative way for the new generation to find meaningful, gainful employment, without being saddled with monstrous loads of student loan debt. He's making the blue-collar career choice cool again. It's an important message, and he is quite a capable spokesperson for the cause.  

We want to go even further with that message. There is definitely a skills gap that must be addressed, but we actually don’t think that the skills gap is the biggest problem blue collar businesses face. In order to persuade young people to consider vocational training for skilled trades, there has to be a clear promise of a better life if they follow that path. The worst thing that could happen, in our opinion, would be for Mike Rowe to actually succeed in convincing millions of young people to train and enter the blue-collar workforce, only for them to show up and be met with dead-end jobs or have to work for poorly-run businesses, in toxic cultures, dominated by burned-out, cynical bosses who do not know how to lead them.  

The bigger problem facing blue-collar industries today won’t end up being the skills gap; it will be the leadership gap.  

THAT is where we must start this conversation. Because growing the business of your dreams starts and ends with the hard work of identifying and then replacing the old ideas and attitudes undermining your success. Have you considered all of the ways that today’s blue-collar cultural attitude may be affecting you as a business owner? Even if you’ve been successful to some degree, could these unexamined norms be undermining your business and robbing you of happiness, in hidden ways you may never have considered? 

Have you ever been ashamed to park your work truck in the driveway after a long day? 

Have you hesitated to tell someone at a party what kind of business you own? 

Have you ever hired someone you knew was going to cause problems for you, simply because you didn't think you could hold out for someone better? 

Have you ever felt like you needed to apologize to a customer for charging what you're worth? 

Have you ever been tempted to live up to a customer’s low expectations of your industry? 

Have you accepted that the kind of employees that have the skills you need also come with other “life baggage” that simply has to be tolerated if you’re going to keep your business open? 

Are you locked in a constant “us versus them” battle with employees and customers? 

Do you feel like you have to rule with an iron fist to get your employees to respect you or not steal from you? 

Are you constantly being dragged into problems and issues you’ve solved a hundred times? 

Have you been one payroll away from financial ruin often enough that you’ve gotten used to the feeling? 

Do you sometimes wonder if it would just be easier to go back to working for someone else? 

These are just some of the many ways we see blue-collar business owners affected by a diminished view of their own importance in the world. In dozens of small, barely noticeable ways, many have just accepted that blue-collar business cannot be any different. 

But it doesn't have to be this way. 

The reality is you don’t have to be a prisoner of your business, rule with an iron fist, or accept the false perception that is widely shared about what your work is. You have the power to change the way things are and change your life.  

True change starts here, right now, with you. Are you ready? Because YOU are the reason we’ve written this book. 

We’re on a mission to destroy the attitudes that sabotage success, and restore the dignity and pride of blue-collar work; to reject the stereotypes and punch through the fallacy that one job is more valuable than another. Blue Collar Proud is an invitation to everyone in our society -- consumer, employee, and business owner alike -- to join us in changing the story and changing the world. 

We believe there’s a knowledge gap, and that a NEW cultural shift needs to happen. There are shifts in our businesses and our ways of leading that need to happen. Are you willing to make those shifts and become a part of the Blue Collar Proud community? 

We’ve written this book to be your resource, a guide that will help you see the benefit of change and encourage you to move forward as you either start from scratch or give your business a much needed makeover. Whether you’re a seasoned blue collar business owner, an entrepreneur, or someone just considering going into business, we’re asking you to move away from old, self-defeating attitudes and models, and build a business that gives you more of what you want; a business that you can be proud of, that we can all be proud of. It takes just as much time and energy to build a business that sucks the life out of you as it does to build one that you love and can be proud of. What do you have to lose? 

Blue Collar Proud is a way of doing business, a way of viewing yourself. It’s a way of doing life. It permeates everything from the way you run your business and the way you attract and interact with customers and employees to the way you relate to your friends and your larger community.  

To be Blue Collar Proud is to take pride in all of society, no matter what color the collar. It’s a reminder to those in our communities that it takes all of us to make a successful society and that none of us are dispensable. It’s a reminder that dignity doesn’t come from the job you do, it comes from the way you do the job. And it’s a reminder that we all have an equal place at the table and we share equally in the honor for the work that we do.  

As business owners ourselves, we know how difficult it can be to make the changes you need to make to be truly successful and build a business you can be proud of. Running a business is hard. It’s easy to get stuck in ineffective ways of doing things, and many of us let learned habits and old attitudes create businesses we just can’t take pride in and don’t enjoy being a part of. If you aren’t proud of what you’ve built, how can you expect others to view you, your company, and your work with pride? You can’t. For the world to begin to see us differently, we have to start by taking pride in our work and making our businesses worthy of pride. That’s what this book is all about. 

You may be asking, why on earth would two men who have never made a living doing blue collar work care about this so much and why should I listen to them?  

It’s true, our business isn't blue-collar, and we don’t hide it. Our story doesn’t start with tool belts and trucks. It starts with computers and creative/marketing work for clients whose names can be found on the Fortune 100 list, the Thinkers50 list of most influential thought leaders, and among the most powerful non-governmental organizations in the world. Sounds great, right? So great, in fact, that the rest of the story may never have happened, except for one small thing... 

We hated it. 

When you don’t enjoy what you do, you start looking for a change. That’s when we met and started working with Mark Stoner, owner of Ashbusters Chimney Service in Nashville, Tennessee. Through him, we were introduced to hundreds of chimney sweeps across North America, and suddenly, just like that, we found clients that we absolutely loved serving. The marketing services we provided to them were making a huge difference and that felt great. We enjoyed these clients so much that we shut down our boutique agency and re-tooled to become a new kind of marketing company called Spark Marketer, geared specifically to serve underserved blue-collar businesses. 

Our story doesn't stop there. In addition to providing online marketing services, we've gone on to serve thousands of blue-collar business owners over the last several years through speaking engagements, workshops, online courses, and our podcast The Blue Collar Proud Show. It has been the privilege of a lifetime for us and our employees to be involved in so many stories of growth and success.  

In all that we do, we’re committed to cheering on the hard-working industries that make this great country what it is, and to strengthening and supporting blue-collar business owners and employees all over the world. 

Our work with businesses like yours has taught us a lot, and we've noticed some things we think are important to discuss. In this book, we’ll be outlining and exploring some of the biggest shifts that are happening and that need to happen within blue collar businesses. We’ll identify changes that are coming or are already here, and show you what needs to be done to set your business up for success in the face of those changes. We’ll show you why the old model for leadership doesn’t work with today’s millennial workforce; how vital core values, company culture, purpose, and mission are to the long-term success of your company (and how establishing them can reduce your stress); how employees can actually free you up instead of making your life a living hell; what operational excellence and excellence in customer service looks like; how to accurately assess your financial health; and more. Each chapter of the book examines one of these key principles, and by the end of this book, you’ll have learned Ten Principles for Building a Kickass Business You Love. When you apply those principles, you'll be able to start growing your business the Blue Collar Proud Way. Reading certain parts of the book may be uncomfortable at times, but we promise it will be worth it. 

So, will you join us? You may not own a blue-collar business. You may not even work for one. Chances are, you know someone who does. Whether it's a friend, a loved one, or you and your family, this topic touches us all. No matter who you are, we invite you to read on with an open mind and heart, and ask yourself, “Am I Blue Collar Proud?” Take the pledge and come with us on our journey to change and elevate the perception of “blue collar” in the nation and the world.  

Carter Harkins and Taylor Hill are the co-hosts of the Blue Collar Proud Show, co-authors of Blue Collar Proud: 10 Principles for Building a Kickass Business You Love, and co-founders of Spark Marketer. They’ve dedicated their careers to changing the perception of blue collar work and serve those who serve the world. @bcpshow @taylorkhill @carterharkins bcpshow.com/contact  


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