A focus on vocational education in working-class towns helps men find good-paying local jobs as manual laborers and machinists. For women in those same blue-collar milieus, it often means lower pay or no work at all, according to new Cornell University research.
In schools that emphasized work training versus college-prep courses such as advanced math, men were more likely than women to take the vocational classes, and thus more likely to find higher-paying blue-collar jobs when they graduated, according to the study, which will appear in the August issue of the American Sociological Review.
Women who do find such jobs earn 22 percent less than men, a gap wider than in white-collar or service-industry positions, according to the study. Gender gaps in employment and wages were widest among young men and women who attended high school in blue-collar communities.
“Blue-collar jobs are still as segregated as they were in the 1950s,” said April Sutton, one of the authors of the study. “Gender has not really been part of the discussion up to this point.”
The fortunes of women in towns where occupations in construction and production were concentrated are in stark contrast to the U.S. overall, where young women are more likely to be enrolled in college than men. Women in their mid-20s in cities with professional occupations made 98 percent of men’s wages, compared to 85 percent for women overall in the blue-collar towns, according to the study.
Such communities are scrambling as more than 3.5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs may need to be staffed over the next decade, and the current lack of skilled workers may result in 2 million of those positions going unfilled, according to a report last year by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.
Educators need to consider gender more prominently in discussions on how to add more vocational education while maintaining a path to college for students, Sutton said. So far, the research shows that classes such as advanced math are losing out when the emphasis switches to skilled jobs.
“This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum situation,” Sutton said. “Don’t do it at the expense of college prep classes. Men also benefit from retaining college prep courses.”