The employment problem of prime-age men
Mount Hood Community College automotive student Ben Brown rebuilds an automatic transmission.
The U.S. economy might be said to have a ‘man problem.’ Over the past several decades, increasing numbers of men in their prime working years have stopped working, or even looking for work. Fewer men than women are pursuing higher education, which would allow them to find better-paying jobs. And technology is squeezing men with poor education levels and job skills out of blue-collar jobs altogether.
But now, as the job market and the industrial sector in particular, pick up, the problem may be easing—a bit.
The first few decades after World War II could be dubbed ‘the Golden Age of Guys.’ Almost all men in their prime working years—25 to 54 years old—were working. The percentage peaked at 96 percent in March 1953.
But by the mid-1970s, that percentage had fallen below 90 percent. Repeated recessions, the energy crisis, women entering the workforce, and the outsourcing of male-dominated manufacturing and other blue-collar work to developing countries with lower labor costs, all took their toll.
“When you see both job quantity and job quality on the wage side declining—the clear sign that there’s a serious problem here—you know that there’s a real contraction in labor demand facing this group,” says Jared Bernstein, who served as chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and is now a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,
There was a brief respite to the long decline in the 2000s. Construction boomed during the housing bubble and absorbed many unskilled and semi-skilled men who no longer could find work in manufacturing. But the Great Recession erased those gains, and even more blue-collar jobs vanished. By late 2009, nearly 20 percent of prime-age men weren’t working. They were unemployed, on disability, or had become discouraged and given up even looking for a job.
“Once you’re out of the labor force it can be tough to get back in,” says Bernstein. “We’re talking about people who ought to be right in the heart of their earning capacity in their career. Way too many of these folks have just left the job market.”
But the economic recovery is several years old now, and jobs—including blue-collar jobs in manufacturing and construction—are being created again. The percentage of prime-age men who aren't employed fell below 17 percent in early 2014.
Bruce Chirre is 29, and has enrolled in an associate’s-degree program to study welding at Mount Hood Community College outside Portland, Oregon. He’s a high-school graduate, has three young children and a wife to support, and was unemployed for two years after being laid off from his job at 7-Eleven.
“It’s hard,” says Chirre. “Going to school, getting loans and all that.” Chirre works part-time as a janitor to pay the bills. Still, he says he’s hopeful about his prospects once he finishes the program later this year. “I’ve already talked to employers and they’re ready to hire,” he says.
Chirre’s welding instructor, Rick Walters, says job offers should be plentiful—in construction, bridge-and-road building, and other trades.
“We have folks who are my age getting into retirement age,” says Walters. “And there is going to be an incredible void of skilled workers. We simply can’t take our infrastructure and export it to China to be welded.” He says welders start right out of community college at around $14/hour. On union jobs, he says, experienced welders can make as much as $45/hour to $65/hour.
Down the hall at the community college is the automotive shop, where a group of students are breaking down and reassembling automatic transmissions. It’s bright, clean, and quieter than in the welding class.
Automotive instructor Steve Michner says all his students already have jobs—that’s how much demand there is for skilled workers. “And then when they graduate all they have to do is keep that position by being a good worker,” he says. Pay in jobs at auto dealerships or auto repair shops can ultimately rise to $50,000 a year or more, he says.
Student Ben Brown is 25. He was working construction after graduating high school, but the work dried up in the recession.
“So I was working at Walgreens and kind of sitting around and nothing was going on in my life, and I’d always intended to do this program out of high school but I was kind of scared,” says Brown. “I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it, so I was like ‘I’ve got to get doing something because I’m not going to be able to make any money.'”
But there are still big hurdles facing the demographic of prime-age men who don't have any higher education, or even a high-school diploma, says Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
“Some of these folks were never in that skilled of a job to begin with,” says Van Horn. “They may have low rates of literacy. And for them to get into some of these jobs that require training is difficult.”