In The College Degree Rush, Blue-Collar Workers Lag Behind
Randy Mancusor, 57, started his job as a marine oiler in the 1970s, and made a decent living at the time. But after nearly 40 years oiling machinery on the Staten Island Ferry, he said his salary increases have not kept up with the rising cost of living in New York City.
“The increase doesn’t completely stop the bleeding of inflation,” he said. “The price of everything has gone up since then – housing, gas… Just air hasn’t.”
The Windsor Terrace resident hopes his son, now 19 and a first-year student at the City University of New York studying criminal psychology, will find a white-collar job after his graduation.
Mancusor is among the many blue-collar workers who have experienced first-hand the cost of not having a college degree. The disparity between what employees with and without a college degree can earn has grown dramatically in the last three decades, according to a report released in February by the Pew Research Center, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
Since 1979, college graduates nationwide increased their median incomes, adjusted for inflation, by 8.3 percent, to $45,500 last year; while high school graduates lost 13 percent of their income, to make only $28,000.
Economists said technology advancement and computerization have shrunk the income of those with only high school degrees. American companies accessing cheaper labor offshore, coupled with exported goods flooding the American market and weakened unions, have combined to reduce incomes and job opportunities for blue-collar workers.
Rick Fry, one of the Pew economists who conducted the research based in U.S. Census reports, said college graduates have weathered economic fluctuations much better than their high school-educated peers. During the recent recession, unemployment went up among college graduates, but it rose much more for those who finished their education with high school. The less-educated employees also saw their working hours and earnings fall more steeply.
“Things have got absolutely worse for young college-educated workers, but it got even worse for high school-educated workers,” he said.
For Kossi Abalo, 32, the value of a college degree is obvious. After two years working on commission as a ticket salesman for New York City tours with fluctuating and unpredictable income, he decided that a high school degree is not enough, and he enrolled for a part-time program at Bronx Community College.
“I should be prepared,” he said while wearing a placard advertising tour bus rides to passers-by in Times Square. “When you have a degree, one day someone will open the door for you.” Abalo plans to move to a new job as soon as he has a chance, he said.
Students like Abalo, seeking better jobs, would do well to pursue computer and technology skills, Fry said. The advance of computer and technology has raised the bar with which employers recruit workers.
“The computer revolution has created demand for better-educated workers, those capable of mastering machines,” he said.
The integration of international trade, production and investment has opened the door for American companies to vast markets overseas and offered American consumers cheaper imported goods. But on the other hand, it has jeopardized blue-collar workers’ jobs as firms move their production overseas to take advantage of lower labor costs, said James O’Sullivan, the chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics Co., an economic research and consulting firm in Valhalla NY.
“People with less education in the developed world find themselves competing with low-cost labor in developing countries,” he said. “People in production industries are more affected in comparison with those in services.”
During the recession, international trade slowed, said O’Sullivan—though not enough for the blue-collar worker to recover.
“But it’s only a temporary development,” he said. “When the economy recovers, I believe we will get back on track very soon.”
Some economists attribute blue-collar workers’ falling income to the decline of trade unions, which used to take a more active role in wage negotiations. Just 11.3 percent of American workers joined unions last year, a sharp drop from the 20.1 percent in 1983, according to the Department of Labor.
“A high school-educated worker could get a decent pay in the manufacturing sector years ago, but now it’s more difficult,” said Frey, the Pew Center economist.
Trade unions have also lost their bargaining power and their ability to set labor standards that raise wages, according to Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington D.C.
“Employers’ militant stance against unions and changes in the application and administration of labor law have helped to weaken unions,” said EPI economist Lawrence Mishel in a research.
Mancusor, the marine oiler from Brooklyn, is not in a union, and said he has little faith in the ability of any union to help him or other workers. Instead, he is putting his faith in his son’s college education.
“I hope he will find a better job than mine,” he said. “College education is the high school diploma of today.”