WASHINGTON – After serving time in a Virginia prison following convictions on gun and drug-possession charges, Sean Collins-Harris decided he would fight the odds against his ever returning to white-collar work with the only tool he had: education.
I refused to believe that I was going to be confined to a blue-collar world, said Collins-Harris, 28. If they didnt open the door for me, I would open my own. If I had a proper education and learned how to be an organizational leader, I could start my own company; I could do my own thing.
Today, Collins-Harris has a masters degree and works for a property-management company in Virginia Beach. It took a personal crash that landed him inside St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake, where he said he buffed floors for 27 cents an hour, for Collins-Harris to understand what so many young American men dont.
The U.S. workplace is polarizing between the education haves and have-nots, said David Autor, professor of economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Middle-skill jobs, typically well-paying work that doesnt require extensive higher education, are vanishing, dividing the labor force into high- and low-skill positions. While women are moving up the knowledge ladder, male educational attainment is growing at a slower rate.
It is terrific that women are getting higher levels of education, Autor said. The problem is that males are not.
Men lagging behind on education raises problems for how fast the U.S. economy can grow, because there arent enough highly skilled Americans, creating a mismatch between company demand and labor-market supply.
Bonnie Dunbar, Chicago-based Boeings director of higher education and science, technology, engineering and math, said the United States doesnt produce enough engineers to fill the needs of growing businesses like hers that also must replace retiring professionals.
There is a shortfall now, Dunbar said. You have these 70,000 engineers graduating every year, and you have all the companies in the U.S. competing for them.
Americas educational lag is what keeps me up at night, said Andrew Liveris, the chief executive officer of Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical. We need Ph.D.s and scientists and chemical engineers, materials engineers.
Wall Street also is suffering from a dearth of educated American men, said Deborah Rivera, founder of The Succession Group, a New York recruiter whose clients include Americas biggest banks.
We see very few American males, or females for that matter, who are prepared to compete for Wall Streets growing quantitative and technology roles that require degrees in math or engineering from universities such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon, Rivera said.
By 2018, some 63 percent of the jobs newly created or vacated by retiring workers will require at least some college education, according to a June 2010 report by Georgetown Universitys Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington.
In his research, Autor said, there are costly societal problems when men fail to move up in education. Their incomes lag, their marriage rates fall and they tend to drop out of the labor force altogether.
White men who dropped out of high school were 17 percentage points less likely to be married than those with some post-high school education in 2008, Autor said in a study. For black men, the difference was 20 percent. Incarceration rates also are higher for male high school dropouts.
The share of women who completed high school was 3 percentage points higher than men in 2010, compared with a 3-point lead by men in 1975, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The percentage of women who obtained a bachelors degree was 8 points higher than men in 2010, compared with a 6-point lead by men in 1975.
And on attending college, women born in 1988 were 10 points more likely to do so than men of the same age, research by economists Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarksi of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor shows.
For young women and men living in the same family, the sisters are going on to outperform their brothers on average, Bailey said. That is the puzzle.
The financial premium is high. The median full-year wage for men 25 to 34 years old with a bachelors degree was $51,000 in 2009, compared with just $32,900 for those with a high school diploma, according to data tracked by NCES.
The recession that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009 accentuated both the gender and education divide.
Unemployment rates for men peaked at 11.2 percent in October 2009 versus a peak of 9 percent for women in November 2010. For men and women with a high school diploma and no college, the jobless rate stood at 8.8 percent in March versus 4.1 percent for workers with a bachelors degree and higher.