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,” Collins-Harris, 28, says. “If they didn’t 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 master’s 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, Virginia, where he says he buffed floors for 27 cents an hour, for Collins-Harris to understand what so many young American men don’t.
The U.S. workplace is polarizing between the education haves and have-nots, says David Autor, professor of economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. So-called middle-skill jobs, typically well-paying work that doesn’t 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 says. “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 aren’t enough highly skilled Americans, creating a mismatch between company demand and labor-market supply.
Bonnie Dunbar, Chicago-based Boeing Co. (BA)’s director of higher education and science, technology, engineering and math, says the U.S. doesn’t produce enough engineers to fill the needs of growing businesses like hers that also must replace retiring professionals.
“There is a shortfall now,” Dunbar says. “It is a recruitment challenge. You have these 70,000 engineers graduating every year, and you have all the companies in the U.S. competing for them.”
America’s educational lag is what “keeps me up at night,” Andrew Liveris, the chief executive officer of Midland, Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co., told Bloomberg News.
‘We need Ph.D.s and scientists and chemical engineers, materials engineers,” he said in a Feb. 28 interview.
Dearth of Educated Workers
Wall Street also is suffering from a dearth of educated American men, says Deborah Rivera, founder of The Succession Group, a New York recruiter whose clients include America’s biggest banks.
“We see very few American males, or females for that matter, who are prepared to compete for Wall Street’s growing quantitative and technology roles that require degrees in math or engineering from universities such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon,” Rivera says.
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 University’s Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington.
Post-secondary education has emerged as an issue in the presidential campaign. In his January 24 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said higher education “can’t be a luxury; it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”
Obama’s comment drew criticism from then-Republican contender Rick Santorum.
“He wants everybody in America to go to college,” Santorum told supporters in Troy, Michigan, on Feb. 25. “What a snob.”
In his research, Autor says there are costly societal problems when men fail to move up in education. Their incomes lag behind, 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 men who didn’t complete high school.
“It is deeply alarming,” says Richard Murnane, an economist and professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “A lot of women don’t want to make lifetime commitments to males who are not going to bring in a good income. It contributes to divorce rates for the same reason.”
More Educated Women
The share of women who completed high school was three percentage points higher than men in 2010, compared with a three point lead by men in 1975, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The percentage of women who obtained a bachelor’s degree was eight points higher than men in 2010, compared with a six-point lead by men in 1975.
Women born in 1988 were 10 points more likely to go to college then men of the same age, research by economists Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. 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 says. “That is the puzzle.”
Economists don’t understand why men wouldn’t seize the chance of education when the financial premium is so high. The median full-year wage for men 25-to-34 years old with a bachelor’s degree was $51,000 in 2009 compared with just $32,900 for those with a high school diploma, according to data tracked by education-statistics center.
Gender, Education Divide
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 bachelor’s degree and higher. Male employment is snapping back at a faster pace in the economic recovery, accounting for 88 percent of the 2.3 million increase in nonfarm payrolls, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For Collins-Harris, America’s male problem starts with broken homes and absent fathers. He says some of the men in the Norfolk, Virginia, community where he grew up could be seen selling drugs or gambling.
“The fathers aren’t there in most of the cases,” says Collins-Harris. “You have all these men being taught to be men by women.”
He says he lived with his mother and grandparents, who pushed him to value education, and enrolled in Norfolk’s Old Dominion University. He paid for his tuition working in department and computer stores. He says he lacked focus and an idea of what he would do, and selling drugs was a way to make fast money.
He was found guilty of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm while in possession of drugs in January 2005, according to documents filed with the Circuit Court of Norfolk.
While serving a five-year term, Collins-Harris met Toks Idowu, chief executive officer of LCI Cooper Group, a Chesapeake, Virginia, defense contractor. With his own money, Idowu developed Leadership Call, a prison rehabilitation program that emphasizes self-sufficiency. He encouraged Collins-Harris to have an action plan and never give up on education as a way out.
Collins-Harris says after he was released in 2009, he borrowed a lawn mower and a power washer from relatives and started a company called Applied Pressure. He says he tried to land call-center and data-entry jobs, finding that his prison record dimmed his chances. One company told him he would never get a white-collar job.
Collins-Harris says he vowed to defy what people thought of a young, black male with a criminal record and “make society a liar.”
He made money chipping paint off ships, took a test to complete his bachelor’s degree at Old Dominion and was hired by the property-management company in 2010. He completed a master’s degree program in organizational leadership at Regent University in Virginia Beach in 2011.
About a month ago, Idowu encouraged Collins-Harris to talk to the inmates at St. Brides.
“They listened, they were quiet,” Collins-Harris says. “They were so inspired to see me come out and go and get a master’s and start my own business.”
Collins-Harris says there should be more messengers like him, because “who is telling them?” People “can rob from you, people can steal from you, but people can never steal what you know.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Craig Torres in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Wellisz at email@example.com;