Vocational training without a strong college-preparatory focus leads to blue-collar jobs for men but penalizes women in the labor market, according to new research from Cornell University.


“This has been a real blind spot in the public discussion: the assumption that men and women would equally benefit from high school training for local blue-collar jobs,” says April Sutton, a Frank H.T. Rhodes Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cornell Population Center, and lead author of the study. Sutton and her colleagues, Amanda Bosky and Chandra Muller, both of the University of Texas at Austin, wrote the study, “Manufacturing Gender Inequality in the New Economy: High School Training for Work in Blue-Collar Communities,” which will appear in the August print issue of the American Sociological Review.


Their research shows that high school vocational training in blue-collar communities reduced both men’s and women’s odds of enrolling in a four-year college but it also led to different outcomes for men and women when they looked for jobs. On the one hand, men in these communities enrolled in greater numbers of vocational courses in high school, had higher rates of blue-collar employment and earned comparable wages relative to men who attended high school in non-blue-collar communities.


In contrast, women who attended high school in blue-collar communities were less likely to be employed at all and less likely to work in professional occupations when they were employed. They also earned far less than their female counterparts from non-blue-collar communities.


“This curricular tradeoff did not penalize men in the labor market, at least in early adulthood, but it restricted women’s opportunities to get good jobs,” Sutton says.


Those women with that training who do obtain blue-collar jobs often find themselves still on the outside looking in at high-paying blue-collar positions, Sutton says. Among high school graduates ages 25-28 in blue collar jobs, the study found that the hourly gender wage gap was 22 percent, with women making 78 cents for every dollar men make.


“The disparity is striking for a millennial cohort of women for whom the pay gap has substantially narrowed on average,” Sutton says.


These findings deserve close attention in light of recent proposals from both sides of the political aisle aiming to reemphasize blue-collar related vocational training, as well as recent legislation in several states bolstering blue-collar related high school training while relaxing academic graduation requirements, Sutton says. Moreover, the study “raises questions about how high school training for these male-dominated, local jobs would impact gender inequality, and it emphasizes the importance of considering gender in debates about the best type of high school training to succeed in today’s economy,” Sutton says.


Women currently represent nearly half of the total U.S. labor pool (and are expected to overtake men soon), but when it comes to manufacturing, they make up less than a third of the workforce. At the same time, it’s estimated that more than 3.5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs may need to be staffed over the next decade, and considering the current lack of skilled workers, two million of those positions may go unfilled.


The solution, says Sutton, isn’t to simply add more skills training at the high school level, but to offer the training in conjunction with college prep classes. After all, she continues, men will also benefit from taking college prep courses.


What are your thoughts on training young men and women alike for skills-based jobs? Are there enough STEM classes being offered as well?