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Blue-Collar Training in High School Leaves Women Behind, UT Study Says

Vocational training without a strong college-preparatory focus in blue-collar community high schools led to wider gender disparities among some millenials, according to sociologists at UT Austin. 

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AUSTIN, Texas — Vocational training without a strong college-preparatory focus in blue-collar community high schools led some millennials to face wider gender employment and wage gaps than their peers, according to sociologists at The University of Texas at Austin.

Education leaders have clashed over how to prepare high schoolers for jobs in the 21st century, debating whether high school curricula should focus more on college preparation or vocational training, especially training linked to blue-collar jobs.

In a study published in the American Sociological Review, researchers considered whether high school graduates in blue-collar communities — those in the top 25 percentile in the research sample for the number of blue-collar laborers — benefit from an emphasis on vocational training in high school. The study showed that blue-collar training without a strong college-preparatory curriculum leads to blue-collar job opportunities for men but penalizes women, who end up earning 78 cents to a man’s dollar.

“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,” said lead author and UT Austin sociology alumna April Sutton, a Frank H.T. Rhodes Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cornell Population Center.

Sutton, along with UT Austin Ph.D. candidate Amanda Bosky and sociology professor Chandra Muller, began their investigation using U.S. Census data and 10 years of U.S. Department of Education data, which tracked 60,000 high school sophomores from 2002 through early adulthood. Data suggested that a stronger focus on vocational training in blue-collar community high schools reduced students’ likelihood of enrolling in a four-year college and increased gender disparities among millennials in this labor market.

Furthermore, men who attended high school in these communities enrolled in greater numbers of blue-collar-related 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.

However, women were less likely to be employed, let alone work in professional occupations, and earned far less than their female counterparts from non-blue-collar communities.

“We rarely see such a clear snapshot of how gender differences emerge and are linked to what high schools teach,” said Muller, research associate in the UT Austin Population Research Center and associate faculty member in the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.

Women who did obtain blue-collar jobs often found themselves still peering through the glass ceiling. Among high school graduates ages 25-28 in blue-collar jobs, the hourly gender wage gap was 22 percent, with women making 78 cents for every dollar men make — a striking disparity for a millennial cohort of women for whom the average pay gap has substantially narrowed, Sutton said.

“Earning a college degree is especially important for young women because they are left out of so many good jobs without it,” Muller said. “Our team has been surprised about the absence of gender in the recent political debate about the value of a four-year degree over technical training.  The debate is more than an intellectual one — it’s one that school boards consider each year when they prioritize funding certain courses and teachers over others.  Opportunities for women must be part of the discussion.”

The study, “Manufacturing Gender Inequality in the New Economy: High School Training for Work in Blue-Collar Communities,” was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.