Ben Ogorek had promising visions of what the corporate world held for him. After spending nearly ten years obtaining his PhD in statistics, he yearned to make a difference. “Now I have this PHD, I’m Doctor Benjamin Ogorek,” he says. “I’m going to enter this amazing phase of life where I’m going to use this degree.” He was hired by Google in 2013, and was ecstatic to work for his dream company. “ It felt like the planets lined up and this was meant to happen,” Ogorek adds.
For Ogorek, 35, the euphoria of being hired by a Fortune 500 company and working in California’s Silicon Valley didn’t last for long. He was part of a team of roughly a dozen other PhDs reviewing and analyzing the results of surveys for the same project and felt his work was undervalued and unneeded.
“I burned out in a way I thought I could never burn out,” Ogorek explains. The stress from his work followed him home and affected his sleep. He started a search for something different.
In 2014, he enrolled in the San Jose City College to learn construction technology for what he thought would be just research for a startup. The community college class inspired him, however, to do something different than to be just the next Silicon Valley startup and he became a laborer in the construction industry.
Across the country from Ogorek — in Norwalk, CT — Lisa DelCegno, 27, faced a similar situation. She was an account executive at an insurance agency after having worked as a waitress at a variety of restaurants and thought her career was successful.
“I had a legitimate career and I was making better money than friends of mine who had completed school,” DelCegno says. “I found better job opportunity than people who had degrees. I moved up within that office.”
As with Ogorek, she soon lost meaning in her work.
It was just kind of soul-crushing to have that pile of paperon my desk every day that was never any different and never really challenged me in any way,” she says. “It’s just the same exact thing basically every single day, day in and day out.”
According to United States Census Bureau data there has been a 45 percent increase in the number of white collar workers putting away their ties and dress shoes in exchange for hard hats and work boots. When Ogorek made the switch, he was just one of over 2.2 million people who made the same career transition between 2011 and 2015.
In the Greater New York area, the trend from white-to-blue-collar work continues to grow at a faster pace than the national average. The number of white collar workers switching careers rose by 71 percent from 2009 to 2015. One result is that New York and New Jersey are the largest and second largest job markets across the country that employ union workers.
Many white collar workers, like DelCegno and Ogorek, are starting careers in skilled trades for a variety of reasons: wanting a similar sense of satisfaction and completion with work, looking for more physical activity and a feeling of annoyances from office politics and corporate structures are just a small set of reasons why these career changes are occurring.
While some may find happiness in their new career, the switch doesn’t come without a set of downsides as well: physically-demanding tasks, dangerous working environments and a loss in salary are some challenges that are expected during a new apprenticeship. Some apprentices do not finish their training programs because of these challenges or for newly-found opportunities in their previous white collar careers.
The loss in salary especially rings true to Ogorek, as he was willing to take a six-figure pay cut if it meant enjoying his work in the construction industry and seeing tangible results to work. “There was this idea that this was real,” he says. “These guys are building things that last. They’re building homes that people live in. I had this vision of guys at the end of the day, patting each other on the back saying ‘look what we just built.’”
He moved apartments to lower his rent from $2,500 to $850 per month and had to dig into his savings accounts in order to live comfortably. While his parents supported his career change, some members of his extended family thought he may have been depressed, or even suicidal, for making such a contrasting change of work and pay.
Jason Gumble, 37, faced a similar salary loss. He was a manager and lead employee for a major photography chain in Belmar, NJ, when he made the jump from his office job to an apprenticeship with an electricians union.
“I did take quite a bit of a pay cut to go into the electrical industry, but I do feel like now my quality of life is much better…It hurt, it hurt a lot,” Gumble says. “I think I made $85,000 the year I left photography. I think I made $35,000 the first year in the electricians’ union. That was a $50,000 paycut, which is huge. I’m back now to where I’m making way more money.”
If you make any decision in life based solely on money, you’re going to find out that you’re wasting your time. If it’s not what you really want to do and your heart is not in it, you’re going to want something else. It’ll only be a matter of time.”
“We call that gap in income ‘short term pain for potentially long term gain,’” says Christopher Kelly, training director of the Long Island Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee for Suffolk and Nassau Counties. “It will eventually pay off at the end because they will surpass that [pay] mark and they will have benefits on top of that.”
Kelly has seen an uptick in white collar workers applying to his training program throughout the last few years and understands the difficulties that come with taking a pay cut.
While the immediate pay loss may be difficult at first, many white collar workers entering the trades find they no longer need to negotiate pay based on their education and prior work experiences. Apprentices who join unions — rather than work with private contractors — receive a pay scale with expected wage increase throughout their time as an apprentice.
In New York City, Paul Vance, 31, a former white collar worker in the photography and design industry, felt at ease knowing what his future pay and benefits packages were going to look like for years to come. “As soon as you step foot into the union, you know what you’re getting yourself into,” he says. “You know what you’re going to make.” As part of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Vance receives a pay increase based on his time in the union. He is just one of over 750,000 members of the IBEW, who all receive health insurance, disability pay, pension and life insurance as part of the benefits packages.
Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, has found that the pay range in the white collar workforce results in a lack of return on extra education, certifications and qualifications that go above and beyond the requirements of the job title or position. “You may or may not get the same wage, you may get a little bump for that extra credential, but it’s certainly not worth it,” Smith says, when referring to the over-qualification affecting the pay of white collar workers.
That return on investment for education is not necessarily a factor in the blue collar industries. Under the IBEW and many other trade unions alike, apprentices receive their five years of training at no cost to them, says Kelly. Some apprenticeship programs may provide enough college credits to obtain a two-or-four year degree if the training centers are partnered with with local state universities or community colleges.
“You are learning not only about the trade, but you are also learning people skills, soft skills, communication skills,” Kelly says. “These things are vital to be in any type of a workforce.”
According to the United States Department of Labor, the typical four-to-five year apprenticeship requires, each year, “normally 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and a recommended minimum of 144 hours of related classroom instruction.”
Kelly describe his apprentices as falling under the category of a “grey collar” worker, meaning that they posses experience from an educated background, while retaining the necessary skills to perform the physically-demanded work required of them. Because of the added classroom education components of many apprenticeship programs — many of which did not exist years ago — Kelly is disturbed of the stigma still tied to skilled tradespeople as having a low intellect or poor education.
“We have national standards, quizzes, testing. The blue collar worker is often miscategorized by the white collar person as not being as educated as they are. That stigma, that still is attached to a construction worker, needs to go away.”
The lack of education isn’t the only stigma that still exists for trade workers. Travis Hamilton, 39, of Miramar Beach, FL, started his own business in home rebuilding and remodeling.
I’ve heard a mom or two say ‘That’s why you should go to college, you don’t want to be [like him].’ I haven’t got the wherewithal to tell them, that mother, that I own like five rental houses…it doesn’t do any good.”
Similar instances have been witnessed by Candice Shaw, 24, of Staten Island, NY. She is now an electrician’s apprentice after having previously worked in social media and marketing. She has routinely faced the negative stigmas associated with her construction clothing while traveling to work or back home.
“I just got a lot of weird looks on the train from people,” Shaw says. “I’d travel with my headphones on and sometimes my phone would die, so I’d hear ‘oh, she’s way too dirty.’”
While there are downsides and problems to overcome for any career, the white collar workers who have made the switch to blue collar work believe they’ve made the right career choice. Brett Bloxsom, 36, a former software developer from Connecticut is now an electrician’s apprentice and couldn’t be happier, even after taking a $40,000 pay cut.
“I definitely feel more fulfilled and I really like working with my hands,” Bloxsom says. “As I gain more experience that feeling will only increase over time. It is also great to be moving around doing physical things versus sitting in a cubicle all day.”
As for Paul Vance, his plumbing apprenticeship has given him a new outlook on the overall perception of not only his trade, but blue collar work in general.
The future is looking fairly bright for all of the Ogoreks, Gumbles, Vances and Shaws of the country. According to the United States Department of Labor, the construction-related industry (which includes plumbers, electricians, laborers, welders and others) is set to add 790,400 jobs by 2024 at a rate of 14 percent, compared to the average for all industries at 6.5 percent. Construction-related jobs have the second highest growth projection for all industries after health care and social assistance jobs.
New York continues to lead ahead of the national average, with an expected growth of 105,000 construction jobs by 2022, but at a rate of 28.4 percent, which is double the national rate of nearly 14 percent.
DelCegno remains steadfast in her pursuit to continue to learn electrical skills and plans on staying where she is for the long run.
As for Ogorek, his plans changed yet again. After one year in the construction industry, Ogorek left the industry and California for Wisconsin to help a friend manage a team at a financial trends analysis group. But, at the end of the day, he misses it all.
“I miss the feeling of accomplishment at the end of every day,” he says. “I miss the lunch breaks where everyone came together and shared food. I miss my friends.”