What I Learned Doing Blue-Collar Work

I never intended to be a blue collar guy. I came fresh out of college with a degree and went right into retail. Did that for a few years. Delivered pizzas. Stocked shelves. It wasn’t glamorous in any respect, hence why I recommend that people get out of retail.


I fell into the position of service technician without seeking it out. I started as a warehouse guy, but within two months I had my own truck.


Working essentially as a repairman has made me appreciate all the grunt work that men do to keep society going. I see fellow repairmen, HCAV guys, plumbers and electricians as brothers. Our work isn’t appreciated, but it is fulfilling in the sense that it makes us different than the rest.


Problem solving and critical thinking.


We’ve all played puzzle games in one form or another. Being a mechanic is living a real-world puzzle game. Human systems have a certain logic to them. When something goes wrong with those systems, you have to follow cause and effect, using some experimentation to work forward from the beginning, and work back from the end, in order to isolate the problem. Once you understand how a system functions, further manipulating that system becomes a lot easier. Doing this day in and day out has allowed me to make faster connections at solving problems. This skill doesn’t merely apply to my job, but has expanded to other areas in my life.


The reason many of us feel anxiety when something goes wrong is because the problem exists in the unknown. The repair could be trivial or monumental, and we can’t tell the difference. Not knowing which is thus a source of great anxiety. However, once you understand that whatever is broken is simply part of a orderly human system then the question isn’t “what’s wrong?” but “okay, I know what’s wrong, so how do I go about fixing it?” Now you’re talking tactics.



Keen observation and intuition.


Active experimentation also encourages keen observational skills, because you have to recognize what’s wrong, what you’ve changed, and the results of that change. You don’t typically have a metric or numbers by which to judge, so recognizing changes relies on your intuition.


Things typically have a functional baseline, and you’ll notice it the more you work with operating equipment. Once you have an intuitive sense of that baseline you can almost instinctually feel when something is off. When your car doesn’t sound right, you notice.


This observational skill isn’t just tied to the realm of the mechanical. I’ve begun to judge plans before they’re executed because I can see the critical flaw before it happens.


Many people lack this skill because their default setting is to glide through life without a thought as to how they would handle a problem. When something does come up (always out of the blue), they pass on the issue to someone else or go running for help. Obviously, this is a manly thing to do.


Isolating a problem is 80% toward fixing it.


Most of life’s problems, whether they are personal or mechanical, involve just finding out where the issue is located. A thousand little things could make a car stop running, and one little thing can have a thousand different signals. Many have pushed off toward self-improvement only to stumble because they haven’t isolated the problem. Getting close isn’t going produce a permanent solution. You need to hit the bull’s eye.


Sometimes that target will be glaringly obvious. Other times it is more obscure. But if you were to truly find it, whether that be a personality flaw or vapor lock, then most of the hard work has already been done.


You can’t always ask for help.


Public education is shit in many respects, but one in particular is that it conditions people to immediately ask for help when they stumble. If you can’t work out a math problem, you go to the teacher. When you’re unsure of something, you’re supposed to ask for clarification. There’s no requirement that you figure stuff out for yourself.


In the real world, there are often times when you’re left completely to your own devices. I’ve been nearly stranded in the mountains with nothing to rely on but my own creativity. Being forced in a situation that you can’t leave means you start to gain a sense of alternatives that you never would have considered before.


If there’s a will, there’s a way. It didn’t realize the truth in that statement until I had no escape route.


Physical morphology.


This one will come off left field but, I can usually tell if a guy picks up a wrench or a dumbbell at the start of each day. Guys at the gym have a cleaner physique with larger biceps and pectorals. Guys whose work is a workout – like craftsmen, builders, roustabouts, etc. – usually have wider shoulders and larger forearms instead of biceps and pectorals.


The gym is a controlled environment where you can isolate muscle groups so that you can craft a certain physique, but in doing so you generally use muscles that aren’t utilized in practical work. For instance, last week I had to reach up into a three inch gap in a ceiling, between an air duct and an I-beam, to cut some copper piping with a rotating cutter. Next, I had to ream and sand the ends of the pipe before attaching a compression fitting on each. This required me to hold my hands over my head and turn, rather than lift. I had to pull piping out from behind the ducts, then had to hammer them into the studs. There is no way in hell any gym equipment could replicate that kind of workout.


Awkward angles and bends are par for the course in my profession, where lifting isn’t so neat and clean like in the gym. In the real world, there aren’t always places where you can brace yourself. You end up having to use many different muscles, some for lifting and others just for balance.


Closing Thoughts


I owe a lot to the company that took this college graduate on the payroll with no mechanical experience and made him a service tech. It was tough getting into the mindset, but the skills I’ve picked up have given me a lot of ancillary benefits, not just in mechanical ability but also in how I approach the various hurdles of life. Realizing that things can be done, that there is a solution and a way to approach almost anything has demolished many mental barriers that once held me back.



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One thought on “What I Learned Doing Blue-Collar Work

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