Blue-Collar Jobs Work Well in Unretirement

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Factory worker moving and stacking cardboard

By Chris Farrell

A common criticism of the Unretirement movement (people earning an income during the traditional retirement years) is that it's a fine idea for office workers and white-collar professionals. But blue-collar workers? Hardly.

Turns out, that conventional wisdom is flat wrong and many workers who've gotten their hands dirty during their careers are proving it.

In my research for my book, Unretirement, and since then, I've learned that quite a few people are staying with -or turning toward - blue-collar part-time work in their Unretirement years, and with good reason.Blue-Collar Jobs In Unretirement

These days, machines do much of the heavy lifting. The tasks performed by blue-collar workers employed full-time or part-time increasingly involve high-tech gear and brainpower rather than brawn and physical endurance. The jobs are often engaging.

Take Stan Kulceski, 77. He went into machining after attending a vocational high school in Pittsburgh, Pa. and picking up additional skills in night school. Kulceski worked in all kinds of machine shops and tackled various machining jobs during his long career, from repairing power turbines to operating mold making plastic injection systems. He "enjoys working with my hands" and delights in the "the math."

Kulceski retired at 68 when the company he worked for was bought out. Now, he instructs others 12 hours a week at New Century Careers, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that develops local entry-level machinists.

"I never thought I would teach," says Kulceski. "I feel that for every student, I'm giving them something they can rely on to make a living and helping keep the industry in the U.S."

Kulceski also works at Costco one or two days a week, usually on the weekend, handing out food samples to customers. "I love that job," he says.

Passing On Knowledge to a New Generation

David Lowe, 66, is another long-time machinist who's now passing along his love of the trade. After nearly four decades as a machinist, Lowe was laid off in 2012, due to an acquisition. "I retired for a year," he says. "I got antsy. I wanted to do something."

Aside from being a councilman in Mount Oliver, a community in South Pittsburgh, Lowe puts in time at New Century, mostly talking with students. "I'm what they call, a 'substitute substitute,'" he says.

New Century's instructors have typically worked 40 to 50 years full-time before turning to teaching part-time. "They had a great life and they want to pass it on," says Paul Anselmo, founder and head of New Century Careers.

Blue-Collar Boomerang Mentors

Some industrial companies are also realizing that their retired skilled workers are valuable mentors. For example, Tennant Company, a Minnesota-based designer and manufacturer of floor maintenance equipment, scrubbers, sweepers, buffers and the like brings back some of its retired technical workers (welders, fabricators, powder coat painters) through flexible schedules. Tennant's blue-collar boomerangs don't get benefits, but they earn essentially what they were making previously on an hourly basis.

"They are high-skilled labor, they know our processes and they can mentor and bring along our more junior operators," says Beth Braun, senior human resource manager for global operations at Tennant.

But isn't this backbreaking work? I asked. Not really, the aptly-named Braun said. Yes, there are physical demands, "but a lot of the work is technical, sitting in front of a computer and programming a laser machine to cut sheet metal, for example," she notes.

On the Road Again

And keep on truckin' could become an Unretirement theme. More than a fifth of long-haul truck drivers are 55 to 65 and many are on their second or third careers, according to Rob Reich, senior vice president of maintenance and driver recruiting for Schneider, the transportation company headquartered in Green Bay, Wisc.

Long-haul trucking is still a demanding job, of course, involving more than its share of frustrations and risks. (Imagine skiing on 18 wheels through the Pennsylvania humps and bumps during the winter, one industry expert told me.) But the job is also getting easier in some respects. The industry is making a transition toward automatic transmissions, far less demanding physically than manual transmissions. All the roughly 2,000 trucks Schneider will buy this year will come with automatic transmissions.

Schneider and other trucking firms welcome older drivers, including couples. If both qualify to drive, they may be assigned together in a "lifestyle team," a potentially attractive option for empty nesters. "We're very flexible with their schedules," says Reich. "That's one reason it's a good second or third career."

Richard Wagner, who runs Dunwoody College of Technology, a trade school on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, told me that older students are coming there to get a certificate that keeps them employed.

Some older electricians, weary of climbing up and down ladders and lugging heavy equipment, get qualified to become estimators on the electrical work for projects, for example. "Former electricians are really good estimators," Wagner says.

With a bit of creativity, there are plenty of Unretirement opportunities in all kinds of jobs: blue- and white collar.
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