Sixteen years after graduating from high school, Mark Taylor in December will complete a degree in computer science at Park University.

To attend classes, he’s driven 55 miles from his home in Valley Falls, Kan., to the campus in Parkville, Mo., with his golden retriever, Hutch, at his side. Taylor, 33, hopes to use what he has learned about Web design and development to earn a living—eventually.

Right now, Taylor is neither working nor looking for a job. He is among some 7 million men nationwide between ages 25 and 54 who are not in the labor force.

Taylor is a full-time student and a single parent. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran also has a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and relies on Hutch, a service dog, to calm and comfort him.

“He can sense my anxiety and flashbacks,” Taylor said of Hutch. Taylor was diagnosed shortly after being discharged from the Marines in 2006.

Mark Taylor of Valley Falls, Kan., with his son, Alexander.

Having a disability, being in school and caring for family responsibilities are three of the situations most often cited by men in this age group who are not working. Retirement is the other.

Overall participation in the labor force declined from 1996 to 2016. Yet, “the increase in nonparticipation was especially stark for prime-age men,” said Didem Tüzemen, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Tüzemen earlier this year published research showing that prime-age men—defined as those from ages 25 to 54 who are not working or looking for work—increased from 4.6 million in 1996 to 7.1 million in 2016.

Tüzemen studied two decades of statistics from the monthly surveys of about 60,000 households nationwide conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Those responding to the surveys are asked whether they are employed, unemployed or not in the labor force. If the respondents are not in the labor force, they are asked, “What best describes your situation at this time?” Nearly half of the men in the survey who are not in the labor force cite a disability or illness as the description of their situation.

Taylor’s situation makes employment challenging. He has to consider child care for an 8-year-old son, a work environment suitable for the constant companionship of his service dog, and bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder.

He is handling child care by taking classes online at home and on campus when his son is in school. Family members nearby help as well.

Taylor receives disability compensation and is participating in a Veterans Affairs treatment program for PTSD. The disability income is not enough to live on, he said, and he wants to find a job eventually. He is pursuing the degree in computer science because information technology skills often can be applied remotely. Taylor would like to be able to develop and design websites from home, where he feels safer and more relaxed.

His desire to work makes him an exception to the research: most of the men from 25 to 54 who are not in the labor force don’t want to return.

In analyzing the statistics, Tüzemen found that “since 2011, the share of nonparticipating prime-age men who want a job has steadily declined, reaching 14.8 percent in 2016.”

Why aren’t they working?

The skills gap

In Tulsa, a billboard announces: “We need welders.” Elsewhere, “Help Wanted” signs are hanging on doors of convenience stores and posted on job boards across the country.

“There is a huge divide between people who have the right skills employers are looking for versus everyone else,” said Shelley Cadamy with Workforce Tulsa, which oversees labor force development planning and coordinates with employers, workers and community partners.

Job openings may be abundant, but candidates with the right skill sets who are available and willing to work aren’t.

“If I had 200 truck drivers show up in my office right now, I’d still have a shortage,” Cadamy said.

About a year ago, a large company in the Tulsa area needed 200 people with accounting skills ranging from bookkeeper to Certified Public Accountant, Cadamy recalled. She had no qualified applicants to offer them.

In Denver, unemployment is at a low 3 percent, and job demand is high.

“Most of our work sites need workers,” said Josh Downey, president of the Denver Area Labor Federation. “Denver is experiencing a shortage of 15,000 to 20,000 workers in construction alone.”

In Oklahoma, “we hear very loudly from manufacturers that they cannot get the workers they need,” said Erin E. Risley-Baird, executive director of the Oklahoma Office of Workforce Development.

Across Oklahoma, 100 occupations have been identified as critical for the state’s continued growth and economic prosperity.

The critical occupations range from physicians and surgeons to plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters to emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

“Even if we filled all those occupations, that’s only 25 percent of all jobs in the state,” Risley-Baird said.

And the gap remains between skills that individuals have now and the skills employers need.

“We are working with employers to find out what competencies they are asking for and we’re talking with education and training providers to bring the two together,” she said.

In Kansas City, where the unemployment rate is about 4 percent, Clyde McQueen, chief executive officer of the Full Employment Council, said he is often asked by employers if he has any information technology workers.

“I’ve got plenty of IT workers—those who didn’t upgrade their skills,” McQueen said.

It’s all about the skills, employment experts say. The right skills. The skills that jobs currently require—not necessarily the skills that workers brought with them when they were hired two decades or even two years ago.

The 'job polarization' factor

Tüzemen examined two decades of employment based on skill levels. What she found was increasing demand for workers from 1996 to 2016 for high-skill and for low-skill occupations and decreasing demand for middle-skill occupations.

In response to advancements in technology, Tüzemen said, “labor demand and the skill composition of jobs have changed dramatically.”

In 1996, nearly 54 percent of all jobs were middle-skill occupations; 31 percent were high-skill occupations; and 14 percent were low-skill occupations.

Those shares shifted. In 2016, the employment share of middle-skill occupations dropped to 43 percent while the employment share of high-skill occupations rose to 38 percent and low-skill to 18 percent.

Tüzemen then studied the change in skill levels with the prime-age men in the labor force and found that “the decline in middle-skill jobs disproportionately affected prime-age men.”

The share of prime-age men in high-skill jobs, such as managerial and professional occupations, increased 4.5 percentage points, and those in low-skill jobs, such as food service and security jobs, increased 4 percentage points. The share of prime-age men in middle-skill jobs, however, decreased by 8.5 percentage points.

“The largest employment losses for prime-age men were in production occupations, reflecting the decline in manufacturing employment,” Tüzemen said.

Workers gravitated toward jobs at the upper and the lower ends of the skills spectrum as jobs in the middle-skill level disappeared—a trend called job polarization.

Tüzemen calculates that the shrinking of the middle-skill occupations—job polarization—led to the loss of 1.9 million jobs for prime-age men in 2016.

“A decline in the demand for middle-skill workers accounts for most of the decline in participation among prime-age men,” Tüzemen said.

Computers, artificial intelligence and robots have all changed middle-skill jobs.

Much assembly-line work has become automated as have other routine jobs in sales, office and administrative services and in the typically male-dominated fields of construction, installation, maintenance and transportation.

“Technology has impacted jobs requiring middle skills,” said Brad Kleindl, professor of marketing and dean of the College of Management at Park University. “Manufacturing today is so highly automated that it takes a higher level of skill to run a machine.”

It’s not just factory jobs.

“Coding is now being done by computers,” Kleindl said. “Coal mining, too, has become a very automated process. Individuals no longer have to go down into a shaft—now they take the top of the mountain off.”

Jobs still exist in manufacturing and mining but the skill level has changed.

The World Coal Association describes modern miners as “highly skilled and well-trained in the use of complex, state-of-the-art equipment.”

Besides skills, other barriers stop some prime-age men who want a job from entering the workforce.

Just the fear of automation, for example, can be an obstacle to entering or re-entering the workforce.

“Technology came upon us rather quickly,” said Downey of the Denver Area Labor Federation.

The need for truck drivers in the Denver area is significant, but “skeptical males 25 to 54 with commercial driver’s licenses are sitting out because they see automation coming and eradicating jobs now held by 60,000 to 90,000 drivers of buses, taxicabs, delivery trucks, service vans and other commercial vehicles,” he said.

The specter of the self-service economy looms large.

These men see what has happened with grocery stores and fear their jobs will go away, too, Downey said. Some stores now employ fewer cashiers and baggers because shoppers can do it all themselves—scan the price, bag the groceries, swipe the card, load the cart and leave.

The decision to exit

Automation played a role in Ted McKinzie’s decision to retire in 2015 at the age of 50.

McKinzie, who holds bachelor's degrees in residential architecture and civil engineering, worked as a property improvement inspector for a national hotel chain for 10 years.

The work allowed him to apply his skills and expertise in reviewing construction, design, quality control and relicensing compliance of hotels in a five- to six-state territory.

“But they were starting to use a digital system—all you did was check boxes,” he said. “Anyone with a high school diploma and computer skills could do the job.”
That change was underway when the last straw—an email—finalized McKinzie’s decision to leave the labor force.

He remembers opening the message on Memorial Day weekend of 2015. The company was notifying him about how he was to spend his $50 per diem allowance for meals.

McKinzie read the email and then gave 30 days’ notice.

“Everything was being micromanaged,” McKinzie recalled.

His work required that he travel four days a week all month long inspecting hotels.

“I was tired of being on the road every week,” McKinzie said. “I was looking for a way out of corporate America.”

Rental property gave him that way out.

McKinzie started buying, remodeling and renting or selling houses and apartment buildings in 2001. He made a mental note then that the investment income would be a good way to replace earnings if necessary.

He now owns 17 single-family houses and a duplex in the Kansas City area. He lives on an 80-acre farm in Lawson, Mo., where he raises chicken and ducks, grows a lot of his own food and is able to pursue a simpler lifestyle with more self-sufficiency.

Leaving the labor force allowed him to care for his 89-year-old mother in Sedalia, Mo., before she died in March 2017.

“Six months after I quit my job, she was diagnosed with cancer,” he recalled. “I was able to spend a huge amount of time with her—taking her to doctor’s appointments, helping her with the garden.”

McKinzie’s work history includes jobs at the Missouri Department of Transportation, a Chicago architecture-engineering firm and a Kansas City engineering firm.

Would he consider returning to the labor force?

“Absolutely not,” he said.

Clearly, McKinzie is retired and he intends to stay that way. But what’s stopping the millions of other prime-age men who aren’t retired, aren’t working and aren’t looking for work?

Older men, especially those who have held the same job for years and are on the verge of retirement, may not be willing to learn new skills. When a factory closes or a job goes away, they may decide to sit tight.

At the Harley-Davidson plant in Kansas City, Mo., 800 workers are deciding what they will do when the plant leaves town in 2019.

The plant will shift its operations to York, Pa., and some of the Kansas City workers may be hired to work there.

“Those who are 50 to 54 are considering whether they want to enter the workforce at this stage of life,” said Kevin Amos, president of the International Association of Machinists Local 176.

If their children are grown, the older Harley-Davidson machinists may choose to rely on the income and health insurance benefits of a working spouse rather than look for another job, Amos said.

In Oklahoma, when oil and gas production declined a few years ago, the Oklahoma Office of Workforce Development offered a training program for petroleum engineers to acquire the skills necessary to work as aerospace or mechanical engineers.

“Very few participated,” Risley-Baird recalled. “There was a reluctance to retrain.”

Sometimes the barriers are as basic as a high school diploma and a driver’s license.

“We are working with nonprofits and the City of Denver to help provide driver’s education and free or low-cost GED courses and with union affiliates to help men get the credential they need for positions in building and construction trades,” Downey said.

So many jobs. So few applicants. What’s a company to do?

The outlook

“We’ve seen a workforce crisis coming for at least 20 years,” Cadamy said. “What should have been happening is apprenticeships and on-the-job training.”

When the Tulsa company couldn’t find the 200 bookkeepers and accountants it wanted, it turned to a community college. Together, the company and the college created two new programs and tweaked an existing one to train workers to fill their positions.

Getting more prime-age men into the labor force “may require equipping workers with the new skills employers are demanding in the face of rapid technological advancements,” Tüzemen said.

The schooling needed in today’s work world often requires only weeks of training to get the right credential or to upgrade existing skills.

Rather than semester-based education, workers now are participating in shorter programs for jobs that require as little as nine or 12 weeks of training and a credential, McQueen said.

“Seventy-five percent of all jobs in our region don’t require a four-year degree,” he said.

McQueen has been with the Kansas City Full Employment Council, a regional workforce system of job training and employment programs, since 1987. He has seen a huge change in the workforce during that time.

Thirty years ago, 65 percent of the job-seekers turning to the council for help were women.

“I noticed a transformation around 2008-2009,” McQueen said. “The number of men increased to about 60 percent of the job applicants.”

With a high school diploma and assembly-line specific skills, men who have lost jobs to automation may need to upgrade their skills.

Yet, school requires an investment of money and time. Sometimes the men who need jobs are supporting families and can’t afford to be without a paycheck.

The men are under strong economic pressure to get a job immediately: “They want to go to school and earn a living at the same time,” McQueen said.

Apprenticeships, involving both classroom instruction and work site training, may be the answer.

Metropolitan Community College-Business & Technology in Kansas City works with regional employers to develop apprenticeship programs to meet the needs of their industry.

“Training may range from eight weeks to two years,” said Jacqueline Gill, president of the Business & Technology Center. “And when you finish, employers are waiting to hire you.”

The college has identified more than 30 in-demand occupations and one of those is web developer.

So, when Mark Taylor is ready to return to work, there’s most likely a place for his website design and development skills.

Although his road to re-entry has had some detours, Taylor is on his way back to the labor force.

Before enrolling at Park University, he earned an associate’s degree at Kansas City Kansas Community College in 2016—after dropping out for a few years.

About that time, Hutch came along to help Taylor with his PTSD: “He can pick up on chemical changes in my brain that I’m not aware are happening.”

Taylor helps other veterans as well. He is a member of Team Fidelis, a Kansas City-area organization, and is a veteran specialist.

“Once members join, they are assigned to a veteran specialist,” he said.

Taylor said he is there “when new members need someone to talk to, and helping out other veterans helps me, too.”

Further resources:
Read the full publication of Senior Economist Didem Tüzemen’s research on prime-age men.