The oil industry may be a magnet for controversy in the U.S. right now, with crude continuing to gush from BP's ruined deep water well in the Gulf of Mexico, but according to Labor Department statistics, oil workers are among the best-paid blue-collar employees there are.
Two oil-related positions make our ranking of the top 10 best-paying blue-collar jobs. Oil and gas rotary drill operators pull down an average of $59,560 a year, with the top 10 percent earning more than $89,100. Petroleum pump system and refinery operators make just a little less, averaging $56,990. The top 10 percent of them earn $78,020.
To compile our list, we combed through data gathered annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a division of the Labor Department. The BLS culls its information from surveys it mails to businesses, and it releases its Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates Data in May. The figures are for 2009.
What defines a blue-collar job? The American Heritage Dictionary says, "Of or relating to wage earners, especially as a class, whose jobs are performed in work clothes and often involve manual labor." We took that definition and excluded work that is largely managerial or supervisory.
Some of the professions on our list require extensive training and apprenticeships that can last as long as four years. For instance, rotary drill operators in the oil industry don't need college degrees, but they either have associate degrees from community college or do apprenticeship training with companies that operate drilling rigs, like the now notorious Transocean. The apprenticeships last six to 12 months, says Richard Ranger, a senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute in Washington. The same goes for petroleum pump system operators, he adds.
To become an elevator installer or repairer takes an apprenticeship of at least four years, says Robert Caporale, the editor of Elevator World magazine. The training also involves evening classes and examinations. The National Association of Elevator Contractors offers a program that includes distance learning and on-the-job training, lasts four years and costs a total of $16,000.
"We used to be called a bastard trade," says Richard Kennedy, the association's president-elect, "because you need to know a little bit of so many disciplines." He explains: "You need to know mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, structural engineering. You have to be extremely proficient at electricity, at computerized controls. You have to be a plumber, a welder, a carpenter." That makes it unsurprising that elevator installers are at the very top of our list, earning an average salary of $67,950. The top 10 percent of them earn more than $98,190.
Other jobs on the list include repairers at power substations, who have an average annual salary of $67,700, and boilermakers, who make $56,680. Transportation inspectors, who earn an average of $61,110, are also on the tally. The top 10 percent of them draw six-figure salaries. Commercial divers, who pull in an average of $58,060, don't literally have blue collars, of course — unless they wear blue wetsuits.