Expert Commentary

Girls in blue-collar communities face poorer job prospects

Young women in blue-collar communities are less likely to have jobs eight years after high school than their peers in other areas, an American Sociological Review study finds.

Women at Douglas Aircraft Company, 1942. (Library of Congress)

The issue: For decades, educators and legislators in the United States have debated how to balance vocational, skills-based training with college-preparatory curricula to best prepare students for the demands of a competitive, global economy.  Some argue that developing the technical skills needed for blue-collar jobs or careers in areas such as construction and installation and repair can be a viable alternative to college-prep coursework, particularly in communities that typically supply workers to blue-collar companies. In such places, classes designed to prepare students for college may be less valuable to some students and their families, especially in light of the growing cost of tuition at four-year colleges.

An academic study worth reading: “Manufacturing Gender Inequality in the New Economy: High School Training for Work in Blue-Collar Communities,” published in the American Sociological Review, 2016.

Study summary:  April Sutton, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Population Center at Cornell University, with co-authors Amanda Bosky, a doctoral candidate in sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, and Chandra Muller, a sociology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, studied how different types of educational opportunities in traditionally blue-collar communities affect men and women’s job and earnings outcomes. They hypothesized that the high school courses and post-graduation jobs available in a given community would affect students’ choices about what courses to take and what jobs they could eventually get. If schools in blue-collar communities offered more vocational courses at the expense of academic courses, then this could disadvantage the labor market options of women in blue-collar communities by limiting their educational opportunities. The authors set out to test their hypothesis by studying 12,770 public high school sophomores represented in the 2002 Educational Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative study that tracks high school students into early adulthood through three rounds of follow-up surveys. The authors linked schools in the longitudinal study to U.S. Census 2000 county-level data and collected district-level per-pupil spending figures from the 2000 and 2001 Common Core of Data on U.S. public schools. They employed several statistical techniques to test whether male and female students in blue-collar communities took more vocational and fewer advanced academic courses compared to their peers in non-blue-collar communities, as well as to what extent this relationship held after taking into account differences in course offerings across schools. Finally, they used the data to explore whether vocational high school training in blue-collar communities affected men and women’s outcomes differently in the labor market, two and eight years out of high school.

Key takeaways from the study:                  

  • Male students in blue-collar communities tend to take more high school vocational courses than their peers in other communities, regardless of the course offerings of the school. However, female students take similar levels of vocational training courses regardless of where they live.
  • Men in blue-collar communities are more likely to get blue-collar jobs after high school than comparable men in non-blue-collar communities. However, women in blue-collar communities are less likely to be employed eight years out of high school and less likely to attend four-year-colleges than comparable women in non-blue collar communities.
  • The authors find evidence to suggest that gender differences in job and wage outcomes are driven by differences in high school course offerings and consequent course selection.
  • There is no statistically significant difference in earnings between men in blue-collar and non-blue-collar communities, while women from blue-collar communities earned, on average, $2.50 less per hour than women from non-blue-collar communities. (After controlling for school course offerings however, this wage difference becomes insignificant.)
  • The wage gap between men and women in blue-collar communities is more than $2, while the wage gap in non-blue-collar communities is 30 cents.
  • Vocational jobs are not evenly distributed across the country. The authors’ calculations, based on U.S. Census 2000 data, reveal a higher concentration of blue-collar jobs in the Southeast and Midwest.
  • The largest wage gap among men and women nationally is within blue-collar occupations. Men with blue-collar jobs earned $17.20 an hour compared to $13.40 an hour for women, according to the authors’ calculations, based on the Census’ March 2012 Current Population Survey. In the service industry, men’s salaries averaged $13.78 while women’s salaries averaged $13.54. Men and women with white-collar jobs earned an average of $24.68 and $21.26, respectively.

Helpful resources for reporters writing about this issue:

  • Some states such as Texas have passed legislation promoting apprenticeships and permitting industries to co-design training courses for high school students to prepare them for blue-collar jobs.
  • President Obama’s ApprenticeshipUSA program, offered through the U.S. Department of Labor (COL), has made $90 million available to support state-level strategies to strengthen apprenticeship-training programs.
  • Several states have created programs that connect high school students with local blue-collar jobs, including South Carolina’s Youth Apprenticeship Carolina and Louisiana’s Jump Start program.
  • Examples of reputable vocational high schools in the U.S. include the Southeast Career Technical Academy in Nevada, where students can earn a high school diploma in addition to technical certifications and professional licenses, and the Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School in Massachusetts, which allows students to work for pay with partnering with firms through the Co-Op program. Four high schools in the New Castle County VoTech School District in Delaware are also notable for coupling vocational training with mentorships.

Related research:

  • The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provides an overview of vocational training education policy in the U.S.
  • A 2016 report from the Pew Research Center analyzes wage gaps by race and gender in the U.S.
  • A 2013 working paper from the World Bank, Yale University and the Malawi National AIDS Commission suggests that Malawian women’s participation in vocational training is affected by family obligations and is more expensive than for men.
  • A 2012 study in Gender & Society, “Occupational Gender Segregation, Globalization, and Gender Earnings Inequality in the U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” examines the earnings of men and women in 271 U.S. locations and the factors that contribute to earnings differences.


Keywords: manufacturing, community colleges, vo-tech

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