Within every white-collar institution, a blue-collar army keeps everything running – quite literally.
The term ‘blue-collar’ was coined in the 1920s and once referred to workers who wore darker clothing to hide dirt. Often stigmatized and connotative of less desirable jobs, the meaning of the term has changed drastically since its inception over 100 years ago. Society relies heavily on the unique skill sets of blue-collar workers nowadays, more than people may realize. BYU is one of those places.
Take BYU alumnus, David Hawks, BYU’s resident sprinkler specialist. Donning an actual blue collar, Hawks keeps BYU’s water running, and is the primary reason the campus lawn stays alive.
From Orem, Utah, Hawks has been a full-time employee at BYU for seven years since completing a degree in Facilities and Property Management and a minor in Landscape Management. From the mouth of Provo Canyon all the way to campus, he is knows his way around sprinklers, valves, filtration systems, flow meters and more. More than just a sprinkler specialist, he’s BYU’s water expert.
“Right at the mouth of the canyon the river meets a pipeline and there’s a screen you have to clean up. This year because water’s been so low I have to go clean those every day,” Hawks said. “It comes into a pipeline, then comes into a couple places on campus that have pump stations.”
Pitch fork in hand, Hawks teeters along a beam to clean the grate, ensuring that BYU’s four pump stations receive clean water. However, the job requires more than just manual labor. It carries a heavy logistics responsibility.
“The hardest part for me is making sure that the schedule works,” Hawks said. “All of our controllers are cloud based. They’re smart controllers. I have to make sure sprinklers don’t turn on during the [football] game.”
Over the last four years, BYU installed a smart system that reduced water usage by 25 to 30 percent, comprising 110 controllers. Hawks is in charge of this system. Before retiring to bed of an evening, Hawks ensures that everything is operating properly within the systems, including a large pump station at Helaman Halls that sees 4000 gallons of water pass through each minute. Sometimes, Hawks will be alerted to an issue that requires immediate attention – even in the middle of the night.
Of the problem-solving aspect of his job, Hawks said, “It’s a fun job. It’s fun figuring stuff out.” Driving back to campus after clearing the grate of debris, his signature cowboy hat sits on his dash.
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, approximately 40 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2020 worked in non-white-collar roles. As the line continues to blur between typically white-collar and blue-collar jobs in terms of pay and responsibility, more university graduates are moving into blue-collar roles than ever before, in what the BLS is classifying as a “labor market problem.”
However, this may not be as much of a ‘problem’ as studies make it out to be.
“Don’t be scared of hands-on work,” Wyatt Hickman, a BYU small equipment mechanic from Blackfoot, Idaho, said.
Hickman transitioned from college life into a typically hands-on role. Having completed a bachelor’s degree in Automotive Technology Management from BYU-Idaho, Hickman’s role is one of many at BYU that requires specific technical skills.
“I feel like everything’s headed one way and I think things need to split. There’s wages coming up, and technical stuff that could still be used,” Hickman said.
Both heavy diesel mechanics, Hickman and Brian Watters oversee BYU’s small equipment repair mechanic shop, ensuring that all tools and small machinery on campus remain in prime working condition.
A veteran mechanic of 50 years, Watters worked for the state for over 25 years before coming out of retirement to return to the workforce at BYU. With half a century of workforce wisdom under his belt, he shared a message for current college students.
“I know the problem with a lot of college kids now is a lot of them are book smart but they don’t know how to work,” Watters said. “It’s the first impression whenever you start any job that makes all the difference in the world.”
Pushing her third full cart of trash-filled bags in the last ten minutes, Ruth Toone of Spanish Fork, Utah, empties the trash receptacles of the Wilkinson Student Center’s peak hour lunch rush. With hungry college students comes full trash bags, and Toone is no stranger to that.
“I get here around 9:30,” Toone said, pushing the dark blue cart back into the bustling atmosphere of the CougarEat. Until 3 p.m., Toone, along with her colleagues, are the sole reason BYU’s students in the Wilkinson Center have a clean and comfortable place to eat, relax and socialize before returning to classes. Without her, facilities like university campuses are unable to maintain such high standards.
Toone is just one of approximately 2 million custodial workers in the U.S. At BYU alone, Building Care hosts 160 full-time employees. One of these employees is Kyle Landeen.
A former employee of Provo City School District, Landeen has worked at the Wilkinson Student Center for 2.5 months as an area supervisor.
“The schedule that I had at the school district was a lot more variable. I worked a lot of overtime. The schedule here is a lot more reliable,” he said. “I like the variety that this building has. We’ll set up for events so it’s not just cleaning all the time. We help all the events that happen in the building.”
A former UVU student, Landeen studied Music and Political Science and is another example of the importance of blue-collar workers within institutions such as BYU, that often focus on the school-to-white-collar pipeline within the classroom.
Without BYU’s many behind-the-scenes and frontline workers, the ‘BYU experience’ would look significantly different — brown lawns, no clean water, excessive trash, subpar facilities and a shortage of good food and award-winning chocolate milk. Other blue-collar workers such as BYU’s cooks, street sweepers, painters, plumbers and security workers, keep not only campus safe, fed and presentable, but also the surrounding areas.
Changing the stigma around blue-collar work is an ongoing effort. For more information on gaining valuable hands-on campus work experience, visit BYU’s Physical Facilities or Dining Services websites.