Men feeling labor pains

Men feeling labor pains

September 7th, 2009 in News

PDF: Men hit hardest by recession

Steve Skeen once earned more than $100,000 a year building luxury homes in Milbrook, N.Y., and personally supervised the building of more than two dozen houses in Cape Coral, Fla., until the housing market collapsed nearly two years ago.

Today, as Americans celebrate Labor Day, the 57-year-old homebuilder is struggling to find almost any job he can while living in a mobile home in Flintstone, Ga.

"I've proven I can build projects on time and on budget, but nobody wants or needs to hire me in the current market," Mr. Skeen said last week while looking for work at the local office of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. "I never thought it would get this bad."

Timothy Goines, left, has help from Adrian Craighead while looking for jobs on the computer at the Tennessee Employment Service Office at Eastgate Center in Brainerd in this file photo.

Timothy Goines, left, has help from Adrian Craighead...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Mr. Skeen is one of a growing number of displaced workers in predominantly male occupations hurt by both the recession and longer-term economic shifts. The U.S. Department of Labor reported last week that the unemployment rate for men rose during August to 10.1 percent -- well above the 7.6 percent rate for women -- as male-dominated factories and building sites continue to lose jobs.

"Men are having a much more difficult time than women in this recession," said Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, who calls the current downturn a "he-cession" or a "man-cession."

"Construction and manufacturing are ground zero in this recession, and those tend to be male-dominated industries," he said.

Over the past three years, more than 2,400 Chattanooga workers lost construction jobs and more than 4,700 were laid off from local factories, according to job estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the six-county Chattanooga metropolitan area. One of every five construction jobs has been cut, and one of every seven manufacturing jobs has been phased out in metro Chattanooga since 2006, the bureau reported.

Such job losses were more than triple the rate for the rest of the Chattanooga economy and came as education and health care jobs -- dominated by female workers -- grew nearly 13 percent.

James Renfro, a 43-year-old cabinet maker, became one of the latest manufacturing job casualties last month when he and 38 other employees were laid off by ALC-Collegedale because of a drop in work.

"This is the first time I've ever been laid off," he said. "It's been difficult -- a little like getting divorced or having a death in the family."

Hopeful local signs

Most economists don't expect a major bounce back in male-dominated industries in the near future, although Chattanooga could be one of the few areas showing manufacturing job growth soon.

Dennis P. Lockhart, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, predicts many of the lost construction and manufacturing jobs in America may not come back even after the economy recovers. But Mr. Lockhart said the addition of the $1 billion Volkswagen car assembly plant and plans for nearly $2 billion in other manufacturing investments in the Chattanooga area by Wacker Chemical Corp., Alstom Power and Chicago Bridge and Iron should boost both construction and manufacturing employment here.

"Chattanooga can boast of something unusual in today's economy: new manufacturing jobs," the Atlanta Fed president recently told the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. "This development runs counter to national trends."

Roger Layne, founder of East Tech Co. here, already is seeing a turnaround in his business.

The local manufacturer of specialized metal products added back its second shift two weeks ago and called back three of the workers laid off last fall when business slumped.

"About six weeks ago, our requests for quotes more than doubled, and right now we're fortunate to be getting orders from everybody," Mr. Layne said. "I hope we've turned a corner."

Jerry Lee, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO, said a rebound in construction still is dependent upon consumers and businesses feeling confident enough again to build for the future.

"Construction is always the last (economic sector) to feel the effects and the last to see the recovery," he said. "But I really think Tennessee should do better than the rest of the country coming out of this because of Volkswagen, Wacker and other major projects."

But even those projects sometimes are short-lived.

Terrell Ridge, 47, has been out of work for the past three months after working more than 60 hours a week at times last year as a grading equipment operator at the Volkswagen site in Chattanooga.

"Nobody seems to be hiring at all in the building industry right now," he said.

Breadwinner blues

For many men used to being the main income providers for their families, unemployment hits not only the pocketbook but also the ego.

"A loss of income can lead to a loss of the masculine identity as a breadwinner," Ron Aday, a professor of sociology at Middle Tennessee State University, told the Tennessean newspaper. "There is ... real potential for emotional turmoil and even household tension for even those men in more egalitarian relationships, where two people are ordinarily pulling the cart."

Mr. Thurmond, who recently wrote a study of the problems of rising male joblessness, worries that the gender gap in unemployment may linger because fewer men are enrolled in college and getting the skills needed for the 21st century economy.

"There are long-term structural implications when you look at male unemployment," he said. "Men experience greater stress, more fatigue and longer bouts of depression from being unemployed than do women. Our cultural and historical gender roles have usually put men as the primary breadwinners in a family."

But University of Tennessee economist Matt Murray said gender roles are changing and economic shifts are favoring jobs requiring more brain than brawn.

"Education and health care have done the best in this recession, and those are fields with disproportionately more female workers," Dr. Murray said. "Women now rule."