The Story Behind Blue Collar University®

How Blue Collar University® Came About

I come from an entirely blue-collar family and ancestry. My grandparents, aunts and uncles and father were all blue-collar. I learned most of my mechanical skills and the basis for forward thinking from my uncle Bill on the family farm in Louisiana. He also told me that the days of the small family farm were over. He encouraged me to go to college and learn something different.

The things I learned as I learned to work?

  • Mental work can be as energy consuming as physical work. [1]
  • A little extra effort up front in the mental department could save a boat load of back breaking work in the physical department.
  • Working with others typically produces better results than working alone. (Still a hard one to swallow…)
  • It’s okay to fail as long as you learn from your failure.
  • As to failure, I have learned that failing fast and learning is, in fact, failing forward. Often more efficiently than trying to be ‘perfect’ before the launch.
  • Perfection is the enemy of done.

I graduated from high school when I was sixteen. I mis-represented my age and got a job offshore is a cooks helper. The following summer my father got me a job on a construction crew is a laborer. The wages were pretty good but I wanted something more. I wasn’t sure what at the time. So I found a job in the oilfield as a mud logger, which was like a very, very, very junior geologist. I traveled from drilling rig to drilling rig for years, going to school about every other semester, including summer semesters.  I was working on my degree in geology. It wasn’t too long before the company started sending me all of the new greenhorns to train.

It turned out that not only did I know what the job was and what we were looking for but I could teach people that. I can break the complex into the simple, and help anyone at any level understand it. It’s one thing to know a job. It’s another to be able to teach it.

I paid own way through college. It took me 10 years to get a four year degree. In that time I also developed a work ethic that caught other people’s attention. I ended up being a drilling fluids engineer and was then hired by an oilfield consultant. In working for this consultant, Reese B. Anderson, I learned even more about mechanics, geology, oil and gas exploration and production drilling. I learned to manage my own projects.

Along came the recession the 1980’s and the oilfield went bust. I had to leave the field I loved the year before I graduated from college.

The only job I could find that paid anything above poverty was for an industrial dismantling company. The owners hired me as a project superintendent, sent me to Chicago for 10 days training which turned out to be three day, and then sent me to Oklahoma to my first project. I was in charge of tearing down an entire refinery that was built during World War II. I had to rely on the people that I was working with and the only experienced person that I had was one field foreman, who was also a druggy it turns out. So I had to hire local talent. I had to learn the basic mechanics of a job and then train them on how to do those jobs. I had to monitor the whole process and use my head to keep people safe, keep us from blowing each other up. I had to do all the paperwork, sell equipment and manage the whole project. Thirteen months of never ending heat, cold, sweat and snow. And management experience you’ll never get in an MBA course.

After years of traveling around the country doing industrial dismantling I went to work for a refinery service company in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had all kinds of titles from operations manager to engineering manager to shop manager to whatever, but I was allowed to operate fairly independently of the rest of the group because of my knowledge and what I was working on. I was in charge of doing the drafting and having our machinists and welders produce products to help refineries fix leaks. I scheduled crews, created and delivered the safety training.

I survived two buyouts. After the second buyout they reorganized and sent my job to Houston. I became a field tech representative at the Chevron Richmond refinery. I got to know the maintenance, projects and the turnaround people. Because of my ability to work with people. I took on areas that I was told not to worry about. They paid off. Some divisions of Chevron gave us their business where we hadn’t done any for years.

I finally took a job outside of the 24/7 hustle and bustle and sold custom cut steel plate. My background with people and with industry I helped because I understood what the customer was looking for.  I held three of the top sales honors each year for the three years I was there.  I was able to work with manufacturers and other machine shops. I was able to increase our margins by a large amounts over my predecessors.

A man I previously worked with then hired me to go back into refineries. I did this for about six months to try and help bail this company out but it was too late and they filed bankruptcy. Once again I found myself out on the streets.  I started a handyman business which did pretty well at.  Then someone asked to be their business mentor. As time went on I felt I was wandering aimlessly so I wrote a One Page Business Plan. It was so powerful I immediately saw a use for it in helping middle and new managers. I contacted Jim Horan, the author of the One Page Business Plan, got certified in its use at all levels, and Jim and I have become friends and he my mentor.

While talking with Jim that he said this: “I don’t know why you avoid blue collar. You know those people, and you know the pain they are in and you have the tools and skills to help them. Why don’t you?” The short version is that there was a lot of pain associated with being a blue collar manager. But then I realized I have the pain reliever.

I decided to go back to blue-collar and help the people there. And I came up with the term Blue Collar University®. The thing is I know what it’s like to be an untrained manager. I know what it’s like to have to learn from scratch. I know what it’s like when the company doesn’t have the internal resources to reach and teach.

So if there is any way I can help either blue or white collar managers and supervisors understand just a little more about themselves, their jobs and each other, I am here. Just call me at 925.354.0277 or email me here.

Bart Gragg, OHST

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Turns out that the brain uses a lot of energy and oxygen – so much so that in trying to do mental work at the same time as physical work can reduce the physical by as much as 50% according to a study cited by author David Rock in “Your Brain at Work”