Young women without college degrees aren’t installing air conditioners, fixing cars or building houses, fields that pay a livable wage and draw mostly men. They wait tables, take care of kids or stock shelves after high school.

Few good jobs await young women who forgo college

As the cost of college soars and completion rates lag, a new veneration is emerging for technical education, fueled by stories of lucrative blue-collar jobs that don’t demand four-year degrees.  The assertion that a college degree is no longer essential surfaced several times last week at a Rethinking Higher Education seminar in Atlanta sponsored by the Atlantic. 

But is it true for women? 

Georgia is among the states touting vo-tech training and credentials in lieu of a traditional bachelor’s degree. The state promotes partnerships between high schools and local industries that bring job training programs to the classroom. But Georgia hasn’t delved into the implications to women, who still often end up in blue-collar ghettos. At vo-tech training centers, young men weld joints and repair car engines, while young women wield thermometers and repair split ends.

The question for schools, parents and students: What are the options for women without a degree to land a job that pays them a livable wage?

How do we get them interested in fields that pay more, which now attract mostly men? (A tougher question would be: How do we raise the pay levels in careers viewed as female?)

National job and earnings data show women aren’t snaring the high-paying jobs that don’t require a degree. As I reported earlier this year, a Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce analysis questioned the value of vocational certificates for women.

The Georgetown report noted women dominated cosmetology, nursing aides, healthcare and food service, while men prevailed in higher-paying fields such as auto mechanics, construction and air-conditioner repair. 

The report cautioned women about enrolling in certificate programs: 

The cost of obtaining a postsecondary vocational certificate may not be worth it for women if they do not find a job directly related to their field of study. In fact, women with just a high school diploma out-earn women who hold certificates when the latter work in jobs not directly related to their educational credential. 

Jobs in healthcare, transportation, cosmetology, and food service result in especially low returns for women, with pay levels below the average earnings of other jobs commonly held by workers with certificates. Jobs in business and office management and in computer and information services pay better, but they are exceptions to the rule that certificates have limited labor-market value for women. 

A 2016 Cornell study found high school training for local blue-collar jobs did not benefit girls nearly as much as boys. The study found blue-collar training without a strong college-preparatory focus hurt women in the labor market. 

As a summary of the study explained: 

Those women who do obtain blue-collar jobs often find themselves still on the outside looking in at high-paying blue-collar positions. 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. “The disparity is striking for a millennial cohort of women for whom the pay gap has substantially narrowed on average,” lead researcher April Sutton said.  

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 said. 

In its story on the Cornell findings, the Atlantic magazine visited high schools in blue-collar communities that instituted vocational training in response to the needs of the local labor market. But, the reporter noted: 

That by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but schools often focus on vocational or technical training at the expense of advanced math and other courses that are designed to prepare students to succeed in college. When those college-prep courses are superseded by vocational classes, both young men and women are, predictably, less likely to enroll in a four-year college. Young men seem to fare just fine when this happens. They frequently take the vocational courses that are offered and find jobs in industries like construction or oil that pay well, sometimes even more than work requiring a four-year college degree. 

But young women who grow up in blue-collar communities often don’t enroll in those kinds of vocational classes, and end up waiting tables and stocking shelves, or out of work altogether after graduation. In the past, women from blue-collar communities sometimes took business-related vocational courses that served as a pathway to decent-paying clerical work. But those jobs have largely disappeared, while fields typically dominated by men, such as auto-repair and construction, remain. 

In a 2013 position paper on girls and vo-tech, the American Association of University Women said: 

Women tend to be overwhelmingly clustered in low-wage, low-skill fields (they constitute 98 percent of students in the cosmetology industry, 87 percent in the child care industry, and 86 percent in the health aide industry). In high-wage, high-skill fields, they fall well below the 25 percent threshold to qualify as a “nontraditional field” (women account for 10 percent of students in the construction and repair industry, 9 percent in the automotive industry, and 16 percent in engineering).

These trends repeat themselves in specific programs nationwide. For example, in 2005, in New Jersey, only 2 percent of automotive students were women. That same year, in Maryland, 14,843 women took child care courses, while only 381 were enrolled in construction and repair and automotive classes. Across the country, women make up 87 percent of students in traditionally female fields and only 15 percent of those in typically male fields.

Any ideas on how to address this disparity? What I find is young women in Atlanta who eschew college toil as waitresses, nannies or nurse’s aides -- sometimes as all three to piece together enough to pay rent and car insurance and support a child.

Are there some young women who become car mechanics or electricians?  How do we increase their ranks?

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.