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Trading suits for boots | How careers in trades are paying more than some degree-required jobs

On this Labor Day, we are looking at the workers who keep the community running.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It's long been assumed by many Americans that college-educated, "white-collar" workers make more money than the "blue-collar" workers who opted out of a four-year education. However, data from the state's database, Jobs 4 TN, show that's not always the case.

 "Right now there's a labor shortage. So if you have the skills and the knowledge, there's an opportunity," said Chris O'Keefe, the president of the Local Ironworkers 384 union, and an ironworker by trade.

Due to that labor shortage, the price of labor is going up. Many fields. from ironwork to pipe-fitting, construction to automotive maintenance, and linework to welding have improved their pay, benefits and work-life balance in the past few decades.

According to data by Jobs 4 TN, a starting salary with a social work degree in Tennessee will get you about $30,000 per year. The median salary is around $45,000 per year, and experienced workers are making about $66,000 per year.

In comparison, electrical powerline technicians make an average starting salary of $48,000 per year. The median salary is $76,000 per year, and experienced workers make about $83,500 per year.

The pay is one reason why young people are starting to choose boots over suits.

Almost 30 years into a career driving for UPS, Jason Marshall doesn't regret a thing.

"When I was 18, I was looking for a job to work at while I went to college. Then, I ended up staying there," Marshall said.

His college degrees in Russian language and political science didn't deliver on the promise of a high salary.

"I got a job working for the state of Tennessee, at the Department of Human Services at the food stamp office, doing food stamp and welfare eligibility," Marshall said.

He said he quickly learned part-time at UPS pays more than full-time in social services.

"It wasn't a bad job, but it was definitely a different environment and office environment. And it didn't pay really well. So when I got enough seniority to go full-time at UPS, I decided to stay there," he said.

This is just one example of a trade paying more. O'Keefe said some of the men and women who travel to do ironwork are making upwards of $100,000 per year.

"You don't have to be into law school or business school to have a career. You can put your hands down and you can go build something. The way that unions pay, once you have some years under your belt, you can make $70,000 to $100,000 a year. On top of that, you get great benefits," O'Keefe said.

Part of that increased pay, O'Keefe said, is due to the labor shortage. It's something he believes is caused by the highly marketed high school-to-college pipeline.

"Everyone was pushed to college and some spoke negatively of labor. They just didn't think the opportunity was there," O'Keefe said. "But,  with labor, the opportunities have always been there. And you're seeing that now because of that gap."

He said there are additional benefits to consider when looking into trade school. The primary benefits aside from the pay are affordable apprenticeships and certifications, fewer years in school, and more on-the-job experience.

"Our guys are working as a full-time apprentice career and putting all their work into their career," O'Keefe said. "With college,  you graduate and you start looking for a job. With trades, you've already had a job the whole time, you already know your career, and you've already been making money the whole time through your apprenticeship."

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