A journalist from a Scottish newspaper contacted me last month wanting my reaction to the announcement that 2,300 people had applied for eighteen trainee driver posts to service a soon to be reopened rail line in the Scottish Boarders running to the south of Edinburgh. With nearly 128 applicants for each of these jobs, the reporter was keen to discover what was behind this headlong rush. Well, to be precise, what I think she was after were some conditioned clichés about working on the railway, the romance of the iron road, and how it is (still) every little boy’s wish to be a train driver.
She seemed a little crestfallen when I suggested some alternative reasons why these new posts might be so valued. First, the trainee’s starting salary was $33,230, about average in the UK before you take in to account the rise to $58,400 when fully qualified. I also suggested that recruits could expect a good pension, reduced travel prices, and, above all, the kind of security that many workers can only dream of. This is all in the context of a double dip recession and high unemployment levels. By this time, I could sense that young journalist’s imagined simple story of boyhood romance was morphing into something far more complex and probably less exciting.
She tried one last tack with me. ‘But why’ she asked, ‘were these jobs so good’? My answer was straightforward; railway work in the UK remains one of the strongest bastions of working-class unionisation. When the industry was privatised, or denationalised, two decades ago, conservative politicians made little attempt to hide that their goals included smashing the unions, reducing levels of pay, and eroding conditions of service. Contrary to the conservatives’ hopes, some railway workers have seen their real pay rates increase considerably, and this is especially true of the drivers.
Hot on the heels of the story about the new railway jobs came a similar story from the English Midlands about 1,701 people applying for three full-time and five part-time barista posts with coffee chain Costa Coffee. In other words, these more mundane, less obviously ‘romantic’ vacancies attracted more applicants per position – roughly 212 applicants for each job — than did the train driver openings. Among the biggest differences between the two jobs is the pay rate. An article in the Guardian pointed out that no barista in London, let alone in the more economically deprived Midlands, gets within ten grand of the national average wage of £26,500. Another key difference is that driving a train requires a year or more of theoretical and practical training while – and no offence to baristas anywhere – serving coffee does not involve a lengthy apprenticeship, much as some of us may want to fetishize its production. The relatively greater interest in the barista jobs may reflect many things, but it is fundamentally a function of the poorly performing economy and the dire labor market in the UK.
Underlying both stories is a common question that must confuse the presumably middle-class newspaper readership: why would so many people want to do blue-collar work? One answer to this question might lie in reflections being made about working- and middle-class aspiration on both sides of the Atlantic, reflections that reassess the value of blue-collar work. The most prominent example comes from US writer Matthew B. Crawford’s bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft, subtitled An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Crawford’s basic thesis is that the middle-class obsession with getting the ‘good job’ often ends in a cubicle. It may be a very nice cubicle, in which one may be able to exercise all sorts of autonomy over the type of posters and humorous postcards placed on its walls, but it’s still a cubicle. Crawford contrasts life slumped in front of a screen between cardboard dividers with the freedom and autonomy still enjoyed by many working-class jobs. He makes much of his own chosen career in motorcycle maintenance, in which he enjoys endless problem solving mixed with extensive banter with other motorcycle aficionados. While Crawford enters this world from a background of relative educational and financial privilege, he does tap into something about the too often hidden rewards of working-class working life, namely the culture of workplaces shaped by ordinary men and women.
Similar revelations can be found in other accounts of middle-class forays into working-class culture, such as Don J. Snyder’s The Cliff Walk: A Job Lost and a Life Found. Snyder recounts how he lost a tenure-track college post and descended down the class ladder. In a fascinating story, he relates how he found redemption through labor with a set of working-class builders who overlooked his technical incompetence because they could see he needed the job. Snyder contrasts the basic humanitarian gesture involved in helping out someone in need with his experience of the middle-class world he had fallen from where many former friends and colleagues had simply turned their backs on him.
In my current job, I am occasionally contacted by the media about the current state of work, and not just about railways. Much like my students, journalists seem to assume that manual labor or blue-collar work is to be avoided at all costs. I always make a point of asking the often young journalist or assistant researchers about their own work and the conditions they enjoy. Usually, they describe a long-hours culture, working on temporary contracts, switching between employers who contract to bigger media players. To these younger media workers, the working-class world of blue-collar work must seem a strangely alien one, where workers more often co-operate than compete and place emphasis on the importance of dignity and respect for a job well done. No wonder they want to produce stories about this type of old-fashioned work.