May 18, 2009 / 11:05 PM / 8 years ago

FEATURE-Blue collar U.S. males lose more ground

* U.S. male unemployment rate surges past national average

* Blue collar men take worst hit, wages keep falling

* Construction may recover; many assembly jobs are gone

By Ed Stoddard

DALLAS, May 19 (Reuters) - Rodney Ringler is an unemployed blue collar male without a college degree. He's hardly alone. Men like him have been the main victims of the current recession in the United States.

"I haven't worked since December of 2007, around the time this recession started," Ringler, a 49-year-old computer technician, said as he walked his dog in a Dallas suburb.

He sees little light at the end of the tunnel.

"I've been looking to get into law enforcement because it's a growth area," he said, but had no immediate prospects.

One statistic that stands out in America's recession-stung economy is the unemployment rate for adult men: in April for the second month in a row it surged ahead of the national average to 9.4 percent versus 8.9 percent for all workers. The jobless rate for adult women was 7.1 percent.

The reasons are clear: male-heavy sectors such as construction and manufacturing have been hard hit. But the implications may be dire for the broader economy and hamper the recovery as families that once had male breadwinners struggle.

"In the 2001 recession, 51 percent of all job losses were for men. It was evenly split. But in this recession 80 percent of the jobs that have been lost have been men's," said Andrew Sum, a labor economics professor at Northeastern University who has studied this issue in detail.

Men also incurred about 80 percent of the job losses in the 1990-91 recession, but Sum said by his calculations the numbers this time were dramatically different. In the 1990-91 recession, men lost 1.037 million jobs. They have lost 4.5 million to date in this one.

"This time around it is amazingly different in terms of the magnitude," Sum said.

It's difficult to compare to earlier recessions because women entered the workforce in big numbers from the 1970s, and industries that continue to grow such as health services favor women.

The male jobless rate is pumped up by white collar banking jobs lost during the global financial crisis. A few of these may have been sent overseas but job growth in this sector should come back in time, analysts said.

HARD TIMES AHEAD

The fact that American males without a college degree are especially vulnerable in this cycle point to more hard times ahead for the U.S. working class, which has endured stagnant and declining wages for the last three decades.

The skilled and semi-skilled jobs they traditionally held have been moving overseas to places like China and Vietnam. The jobs that remain pay less, amid declining union membership.

One study by Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution think-tank found median U.S. family income rose to $53,280 by the middle of this decade in 2004 dollars from $37,384 in 1964. But for males aged 30 to 39, average annual personal income fell from the mid-1970s by around $5,000 to $35,000.

The growth in family incomes is mostly from women entering the workforce. But during this recession that will hardly compensate given the scale of male job losses.

For those without a college degree or better, it has been a bloodbath.

"College-educated men have lost 1.4 percent of their employment levels since right before the beginning of the recession in November 2007, but for men as a whole it has been nearly six percent," said Sum.

Sum said in the last recession the effects were felt more evenly across gender and occupational lines and that construction jobs grew from mid-2002 onward at a strong rate through 2007. But production and manufacturing jobs fell steadily through 2005 before making a modest recovery, and then falling swiftly.

EXPANDED WOMEN'S ROLE

This is grim news for struggling blue collar families. While women's role in the workforce has expanded, by some estimates the male remains the main breadwinner in about 75 percent of two-income U.S. households.

"When males lose their jobs ... women become more important to family income, and those that have not been working will re-enter the labor market to sustain family income," said Peter Doeringer, a Professor of Economics at Boston University.

Patti Sutton, 58, a coffee shop worker in the Phoenix Valley, falls into this category.

Her husband Scott was laid off in October last year. He had worked for 18 years for a company as a heavy equipment operator excavating the foundations for luxury homes, earning about $800-900 a week without overtime, and was among the last five workers to be laid off from a staff of 155.

"I am now the family breadwinner," said Sutton. She went out to work to get health insurance coverage for her husband in the year before he was laid off after he lost coverage for a heart condition from his employer. He needs a heart transplant, and was facing insurance costs of $1,800 a month.

"It's not like I'm exactly earning enough to be the breadwinner," she said. "Basically this job is for insurance, what I bring home barely covers food and maybe a utility."

Her situation may be permanent, she said, though construction jobs are seen coming back eventually, spurred in part by President Barack Obama's $787 billion fiscal stimulus plan that includes funds for road and bridge construction.

But many manufacturing jobs are gone for good, as huge sectors like the auto industry suffer profound cuts.

Doeringer said the recession will leave the economy "sharply restructured".

"The construction jobs will return, but we are seeing an unusually sharp drop in what is left of manufacturing and much of that drop will not be recovered when the recession ends, and much of what does remain will have be at lower wages with reduced fringe benefits," he said.

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix, editing by Philip Barbara

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