High-wage jobs traditionally snapped up by men with lackluster grades and/or no college degree are disappearing.


“Most men are capable of swift and important change when they understand and see their course clearly.” —Anthony J. Ipsaro, Ph.D., Psy.D.

The good news is that boys who struggle in high school or college often thrive in the workplace. Why? Either because the workplace suits their skills and approach to life better than the school system—it offers a more natural fit—or because they experience a spurt of maturity and responsibility (in part a result of the brain completing its development).

But, as the workplace changes, that natural fit gets ever less comfortable. Parents whose career advice to their sons is based on what worked last generation need to read this article carefully. They need to judge how they can maximize their son’s chances of success by a) helping him realign career aspirations with what the changing economy is actually offering, and b) engaging him in conversations about how the workplace is changing and what employers are looking for these days.

Many high-wage jobs traditionally snapped up by men with lackluster grades and/or no college degree are disappearing. Manufacturing jobs have been moving overseas for decades, sales jobs are morphing into degree-requiring careers, and even white-collar positions are being outsourced with greater ease these days.

A former machinist reduced during the recent recession to working part-time for minimum wage as a Walmart cashier spoke of how neighbors passing through the cash register lineup avoided his eyes, pretending not to know him. “I know they knew me; I’ve been in their home,” he said. He appreciates that his wife has a higher-paying job but he admits that there’s a toll on their relationship as a result.

Men suffered roughly three-quarters of the eight million job losses between 2008 and 2010. That’s because male-dominated industries (construction, finance, manufacturing) were particularly hard-hit, while female-heavy sectors (education, healthcare) did relatively well. The result? In 2010 for the first time in history, women were on the brink of holding a majority of jobs in the U.S.

Are men ready to accept earning less than their fathers and the women in their lives, and to experience longer periods of unemployment? Knowing the score makes it easier for parents to talk with sons about these issues and to devise ways of avoiding their being sucked into a place of resentment and defeatism.

Here are the messages parents need to get across. Consider introducing them as family conversations, topics for family meetings or debates.

Today’s workers need more education. College admissions boards scrutinize high school grades, and a college degree remains the primary ticket to high-paying jobs. As the percentage of males obtaining university degrees dwindles, more and more women will earn as much or more than men, which can negatively impact females. (Women’s overall salaries remain lower than men’s so far, but that’s in part because women often choose less lucrative occupations than men, and opt for part-time work to care for children.)

“The good jobs—the jobs that pay enough to support a family— continue to become more complex and to require employees with greater levels of skill,” say authors and professors Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy. “And so, economic change hits hardest at the least educated.”

Here’s how the job market has shifted in the United States:
………………………..1950s        1990s
professional jobs: 20%           20%
skilled labor:         20%           more than 60%
unskilled labor:     60%           less than 20%

The transition from unskilled to skilled labor demands more education and training, but worryingly, the skilled-labor sector is seeking skills not traditionally valued by males. That begs for new perspective and an attitude change, something parents can help their son achieve more easily than educators or peers can.

It’s worthwhile to remind our sons that not only are they competing against females, but against newcomers whose attitudes (not just aptitudes) will be compared closely to theirs. In the 1970s and 1980s, when males transitioning from manufacturing to service work overtly showed resentment and “displayed less flexibility on the job than, for instance, first-generation immigrant workers…employers began to prefer hiring women and immigrants, and a vicious cycle of resentment, discrimination, and joblessness set in.”

Schools typically haven’t kept pace with training kids for what the workplace needs. “Many of today’s schools continue to educate children for an economy that no longer exists, and many of today’s parents are just beginning to recognize the problem,” say Murnane and Levy.

There are ways for parents to supplement what the schools are missing, steer their boy toward extracurricular activities that will add value to his resume, and (in an activist’s role) improve his high school’s effectiveness. (Read Murnane and Levy’s Teaching the New Basic Skills.)

Doing all you can to ensure that your son gets quality teachers is also key. “Three good teachers in a row, and the student is going to be a year-and-a-half to two years ahead of grade level. Three bad teachers in a row and the average student’s going to be so far behind it’s hard for them to ever catch up,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said. Of course, getting the grades to get into an elite university is an ideal solution, as such graduates are the least likely to suffer.

What else can parents do? We know three sets of parents who pooled their expertise to tutor one another’s boys for a college entrance exam. And a mom who helped her son research what a local employer was looking for after he was turned down. (She did this because she was distressed by how depressed the rejection made him.) When he learned that “international experience” was a major plus at the company, she said she’d support his efforts to select an overseas charity work stint. He chose to build houses in Peru for Habitat for Humanity. He came back a new man—energized, motivated, and eventually accepted by the employer who’d previously turned him down.

The workplace has changed. Lifetime employment, company loyalty, and a “safe career” are largely entities of the past. To borrow a phrase from the music industry, most employees these days are only as good as their last gig. In fact, roughly forty percent of the workforce has been with their current employer for less than two years.
Workers need to be prepared not only to change jobs, but to change careers several times in their lifetime, and college graduates are the best positioned to do this.

It’s also true that as manufacturing jobs shrink, as service jobs grow, and as women move into ever more industries and job levels, men are taking on traditionally female roles. They’re becoming nurses, librarians, kindergarten teachers, paralegals, typists, and secretaries.

Service work requires different interpersonal skills and different ways of presenting one’s self than blue-collar work demands. If an applicant knows this going in, and stays open-minded to some coaching from a mentor, colleague, or book on job interviewing (perhaps one you find for him), that need not be a barrier.

One way to help make our sons more open to these jobs is to introduce them to dynamic men who’ve become comfortable in such roles. For instance, help a local community center pull together an evening roster of male speakers: a male nurse who emphasizes how his work allows him to live overseas; a male librarian who relates his thrill at getting to attend a sci-fi writers’ conference as part of his job. Or invite such men to your home for dinner.

The type of worker in demand has changed. “A young man shuffled into the interview room and slumped into a chair. He had jumped through the hoops of postsecondary education and seemed to be, at least on paper, a promising candidate. Yet he was unable to convince an employer desperate to fill the job that he was the right person. He lacked communication skills, and didn’t pass the reading comprehension test. The position went unfilled…”

How could that be? Why do experts say that a lack of applicants with “people skills” is the largest challenge facing employers these days, even those having difficulty filling jobs? Most importantly, how can parents ensure that their son passes muster in this area? First, get him involved in volunteer work or jobs that entail working with people (camp counselor, retail, etc.). Second, restrict his time on electronic gadgets. Anything that involves face-to-face communicating, working with others, and thinking abstractly is important.

Also, drive home the message that where individualism and competition were once applauded, now employers look for collaboration and teamwork, and inclusion rather than exclusion. Those in the hiring seat also want fewer “dominant, self-interested, and tough” leaders, and more “people of principle, vision, and humanity.”

Here’s how author Daniel H. Pink puts it in A Whole New Mind: “The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind—computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big-picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

Big-picture thinking and empathy tend to reside in people with a variety of experiences, Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has said. In other words, parents should encourage their kids to work a variety of jobs and volunteer positions and travel if possible.

Today’s employers are also on the lookout for 1) hard skills: basic mathematics, problem-solving, and reading abilities at levels much higher than many high school graduates now attain; 2) soft skills: the ability to work in groups and to make effective oral and written presentations, skills many schools do not teach; and 3) computer skills.

The workplace has diversified, and employers want hires who work well with a diversity of cultures, genders, and age groups. It’s never too late to encourage this. Boys need to learn how to connect. This is best taught by activities such as laughing and roughhousing, especially involving dads, uncles, or grandpas. Have fun with them in a way that involves eye contact, conversation, and listening, says Jean Mavrelis, a corporate consultant on gender and culture.

Finally, the workplace values employees with perseverance, adaptability, humility, and entrepreneurialism and is wary of those who need almost constant direction, which Ron Alsop, author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up, says micromanaged children become. Positive parenting, with its emphasis on family meetings, collaborating, and mutual respect, equips boys to think for themselves, which is the opposite of micromanagement.

Men and women bring different approaches to the table. Knowing this allows our sons to present themselves to employers in the best light, and to vigorously pursue working on any shortcomings. Here’s what experts say:
Men are more comfortable in a hierarchical, process-driven world, which means they formerly had an advantage, but as more and more workplaces stress a creative and synergistic approach, women may come to have the upper hand.

Men tend to have a thicker skin and they’re more invested in “knowing” than listening and learning. Many white guys in particular “freely engage in competition and conflict without preoccupation or concern with how that might undermine the group or how others are feeling,” say the authors of Corporate Tribalism. If we enlist male mentors to help our boys understand that this can work against them in today’s work environment, might they work at moderating such tendencies?

When a particular plan isn’t working out, women tend to be faster at changing course in midstream; men tend to work the same plan harder. In other words, in a global environment that demands flexibility and speedy decisions, men may have something to learn from women.

Finally, men’s identities are far more defined by their work than women’s; perhaps just being aware of this tendency may help men present themselves in whatever light is most advantageous.

Excerpted from Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life, by Pam Withers and Cynthia Gill (Viva Editions). All references (footnotes) contained in the book.