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  • Throughout their history, community colleges have been uniquely positioned to help non-working men. Tweet This
  • Community colleges and vocational institutions are well-positioned to make a significant impact on the rapidly changing landscape of American postsecondary education and workforce training—particularly for non-working men who are in their prime years of productivity and earning potential. Tweet This

Stable marriages lead to strong families, which in turn lead to a flourishing society. But how do we promote healthy families in a culture where cohabitation rates are soaring while marriage rates plummet? More pointedly, how can we promote stable marriages and families when many men increasingly remain in perpetual adolescence and fail to assume adult responsibilities that lead to success in work, marriage, and family?  

After all, it is well established that employability and marriageability are deeply intertwined—and that despite significant gains in women’s rights and labor force participation, fully 78% of American women who have never been married say it is “very important” that their future spouse has a “steady job.”

Perhaps part of the answer is to take a step back and focus on one of the basics—the “success sequence.” Scholars on both sides of the political aisle agree that people who follow the success sequence—graduate high school, get a job, then get married and have kids (in that order)—generally experience better outcomes in life than those who fall off the path.   

So, how do we get more men on track with the first step—getting a good education—so they are better able to find a good job and eventually get married?

Even though the American economy is currently booming and unemployment rates are at rarely-seen lows for nearly every demographic, there remains a crisis of non-working American males in their prime years (ages 25 to 54). As highlighted by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and other scholars, an estimated seven million U.S. men in their peak working years are absent from the labor force today—neither working nor actively searching for work. 

Put in historical perspective, today’s seven million non-working American men represent a nearly seven-fold increase from 1965, when 1.1 million men were non-working. Strikingly, workforce participation rates for prime-age American males in 2015 appeared to be worse than during the latter years of the Great Depression. 

Globally, America’s incidence of non-working males stands out as well—but not in a good way. The U.S. labor force participation rate for this group of prime-age non-working men is lower than every country in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), except Israel and Italy.   

Non-working American men tend to be minorities, under-educated (a high school degree or less), have a household median income of $25,000 or less, and be unmarried. On this last point, as detailed by Eberstadt, marital status for prime-age men has been a powerful predictor of American employment behavior going as far back as 1965. And in 2015, the proportion of never-married men was over three times higher than in 1965.

Community Colleges As Part of the Solution

While the problem of prime-age non-working men in America is now well-documented, practical solutions for introducing them to the labor force are more challenging. One solution is to connect these non-working men with job-focused postsecondary training and credentialing. A particularly promising way to accomplish this is through America’s more than 1,000 community colleges that offer two-year associate degrees and shorter-term credentials, certificates, and apprenticeships.

The good news is that community colleges hold the strongest potential for engaging the greatest number of the seven million able-bodied, prime-age males absent from the workforce—and delivering results in the shortest timeframe.  

Why is this?

As a uniquely American higher education institution, community colleges emphasize tightly condensed training schedules, stackable credentials, and clear pathways to actual jobs that exist in the economy. In addition, community colleges and vocational institutions offer a number of important attributes that increase the likelihood that their students will earn their credentials and land that first job: local proximity, open access, low tuition costs, and industry partnerships that meet local employer demands and address America’s rapidly shifting labor force.

The bottom line is that throughout their history, community colleges have been uniquely positioned to help non-working men. And according to 2011-2012 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, today more than ever, the student population at community colleges mirrors the defining characteristics of non-working males in the U.S.—minorities, under-educated individuals, and those from lower-income households. 

Do Community Colleges and Vocational Schools Deliver Results? 

When it comes to a return on investment, community colleges stand out compared to other postsecondary options because they offer training specifically for middle-skills jobs—those that require more than a high-school diploma but less than a four-year degree. Job sectors rich in middle-skills jobs include advanced manufacturing, medical, construction, and transportation. Today, experts say 29 million middle-skills jobs exist in the U.S.—with 40% offering annual salaries in excess of $50,000. 

Even better, tuition at community colleges is cost-effective enough to make attendance feasible for nearly every American—averaging $3,435 for full-time students during the 2015-2016 academic year, fully 37% less than average tuition for in-state students at public four-year schools. Factoring in plentiful state and federal financial aid options, community colleges are an economically viable path to completing the first step on the success sequence—getting a good education.

Clearly, community colleges and vocational institutions are well-positioned to make a significant impact on the rapidly changing landscape of American postsecondary education and workforce training—particularly for non-working men between the ages of 25 and 54 who are in their prime years of productivity and earning potential. The challenge is not only how best to engage non-working men in education and training programs, but also how to help them persist to graduation, and then help them find jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. 

The success sequence flows from educational attainment toward marriage and then to healthy families. Yet, as the U.S. grapples with a declining labor force participation rate and historically high levels of non-working men in their prime years of productivity, studies show that the negative impact on marriage, families, and a stable and flourishing society is profound. 

Given this reality, now is the time to focus on creative solutions that not only give non-working men the tools they need to succeed in the employment arena, but also make them marriageable. Perhaps the missing piece to the puzzle is a national effort to scale up and retool our extensive community college system so that men can raise their skill levels, earnings, maturity, and self-confidence—and find work that confers dignity and personal fulfillment. Along the way, society gets the added bonus of a new generation of men who are able to navigate the success sequence and get married, raise a family, and give back to their neighborhoods and communities in ways that bring both individual and collective flourishing.

David Bass is a writer for the Georgia Center for Opportunity and a contributing editor with the Philanthropy Roundtable.