Maine Focus

Thousands of Maine men are missing from the workforce, and no one really knows why

Posted April 11, 2017, at 6:34 a.m.
Last modified April 21, 2017, at 9:52 a.m.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series called Forgotten Maine Workers that examines how Maine could realize the hidden potential among its workers.

Jon Hunt, or Twitch as he’s known, isn’t much of a talker. He isn’t much of anything, as he sees it.

That’s because, at 26, Twitch has never held an official job. He’s worked as a roofer, a blueberry raker and a construction worker — “backbreaking shit,” he said — but always under the table.

When he’s not working for cash, he goes to the Bangor Public Library to chat with friends on Facebook Messenger using the free wifi; smokes marijuana at friends’ apartments; and listens to music — usually rap on his earmuff-sized headphones.

In addition to occasional pocket change gleaned from odd jobs, Twitch lives off a monthly $750 disability check he gets for his mild schizophrenia, which he says he was diagnosed with around 2011.

In Twitch’s circle, he’s not a pariah. He’s the norm. Most of his friends, men in their late 20s, also don’t work. Like Twitch, they survive on disability and random, under-the-table jobs.

Forty years ago, it was almost unheard of for a man of Twitch’s age to be out of the workforce, meaning neither working nor looking for work. But today, some 15 percent of Maine men ages 25 to 54 find themselves in that situation, according to the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.  

In 2015 that represented about 37,000 Maine men in their prime who were not officially working or looking for work. While some of these men may be working off the books or on occasional seasonal gigs, many of them are idle.

Still, more men work than women. But over the last half century, as women have steadily entered the workforce, men have been leaving it.

Though the data tell us that these disengaged men are out there, they do not tell us who they are or how to draw them back into an aging workforce that needs their labor. On these last points, no one seems to know.

The range of men in this situation is so vast — from stay-at-home dads who choose not to work, to laid-off mill workers who never got back on their feet after a mill closure, to guys who work under the table chopping wood — that it’s a challenging group to understand. Nonetheless, figuring out just who these men are and how to support them could help return meaning to their lives and ensure employers have workers to power Maine’s economy.

Men have been leaving the workforce across the United States, but the trend is more acute in Maine. Maine has the eighth highest rate of male disengagement in the country, trailing only economically depressed southern states such as Mississippi and Alabama, according to census data.

In the recent past, it was possible to overlook men like Twitch who had given up entirely on formal work. After all, many of them are socially invisible — disconnected not only from the workforce but also from their communities.

But today, with an aging workforce that’s projected to result in a net loss of 111,000 workers over the next two decades, business leaders and economists are starting to pay closer attention to the men who have fallen through the cracks. They’re starting to think about how they might be brought back to work or, in Twitch’s case, brought to work in the first place.

“We’ve got businesses that need people, and we’ve got people that need incomes. We’ve got to create that bridge,” said Heather Johnson, executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corp., an organization working on a pilot project to help Somerset County’s jobless connect with local employers struggling to fill vacancies.

The challenge, though, is that relatively little is known about these so-called “missing men” and how they might be re-engaged. They tend to have a high school diploma or less and to live at the rural edges of Maine’s western- and easternmost counties, according to an analysis by the state’s Center for Workforce Research and Information. And national census data show they tend to be single.

But economists and other labor force experts don’t know much more than these glimmers.

“We don’t know enough about the severity of their estrangement from the culture and how far they have been driven to the edges,” said John Dorrer, who used to lead the Center for Workforce Research and Information.

‘No good alternative jobs’

The American male flight from work has been called an “economic mystery.” Though no one has quite figured out why it’s been happening, theories abound.

The most obvious and oft-cited theory is that the decline of manufacturing and the rise of technological innovations have resulted in fewer well-paying jobs for low-skilled men.

Indeed, manufacturing jobs in Maine peaked in 1979, around the same time that men started leaving the workforce.

“Manufacturing was a heavily male-dominated industry — a place where low-skilled men with high school diplomas could do very well and get middle-class wages,” Dorrer said. “That’s now gone. It’s stripped away. And there are no good alternative jobs for those folks.”

Wages for less educated men have been falling steadily in recent decades. The median earnings of working men ages 30 to 45 without a high school diploma fell 20 percent from 1990 to 2013 when adjusted for inflation, according to a Brookings Institution project. The median earnings for men with a high school diploma declined 13 percent in that time span.

A surge in incarceration rates has also made it harder for men to find work, since the vast majority of prison inmates are men, a 2016 report by former President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors theorized.

While Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, the state’s prison population has nonetheless risen threefold since 1980. Men with prison records are far more likely to face joblessness after they’ve been released, the 2016 report explained.

The last of the big theories about why men are leaving the labor force comes mainly from conservative scholars who say the broadening of eligibility criteria for social welfare benefits — in particular, disability —  have lured men away from the labor force.

The two main federal disability programs — notably Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income —  became easier to qualify for in the 1980s, when the Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act loosened the screening criteria. Subsequently, an industry of lawyers and consultants popped up to encourage people to get on federal disability, according to a National Public Radio investigation.

Use of disability benefits has risen more among 25- to 54-year-old men who are not in the labor force than any other group, Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist with the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in his 2016 book “Men Without Work.”

Between 1985 and 2013, the share of this group of men on disability rose from around 36 percent to 57 percent, according to Eberstadt’s analysis of national census data.

In contrast, use of disability benefits remained steady among American men who worked. (While the programs are supposed to be for people who can’t do what’s called substantial gainful activity, they do allow people to work a small amount and earn up to $1,170 a month.)

What remains an open question is how many men are actually able to work but are being lured away from jobs by disability benefits as the conservative scholars suggest, compared with how many are turning to disability benefits because there are no good jobs for them.

Today, Maine has one of the highest rates of residents on federal disability in the nation (10 percent compared with 6 percent nationally). The single largest category of Maine’s disability recipients are people who have mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, severe depression and anxiety, according to Social Security Administration data.

‘There has to be a tipping point’

Nick Hawes, who is 28 and lives in Bangor, has not read the studies. He has not talked to the experts. He doesn’t have to. As a close friend to Twitch and a handful of other jobless “losers,” as he playfully calls his friends, he is an expert on the issue himself — a field expert.

Hawes lucked out, in a sense, because he joined the military as a teenager, and after seven years, eight months and 29 days of service, he said, he was eligible to take free classes through the GI bill — an opportunity he’d otherwise never have been able to afford.

Most of his friends didn’t have that chance, so while Hawes was getting his license to install heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems — learning a trade that earns a median income of $46,540 a year in Maine — lots of his friends were jobless, collecting disability and getting into drugs.

Hawes, who has tattoos up and down his forearms, spends much of his off time with Twitch. The confident and loquacious Hawes and the quiet and observant Twitch make a balanced pair.

“Forgive me if I’m wrong, dude, but now that you’re getting towards your 30s didn’t you feel like you had to go out and get your disability because it’s just a losing battle every day?” Hawes prodded Twitch on Feb. 23 while the two were waiting for a friend at the Bangor Public Library.

“Yeah,” Twitch conceded. “I couldn’t afford an apartment. I couldn’t even really afford to feed myself really,” he said, his head down.

Twitch moved to Maine from upstate New York with his mom and stepdad when he was 15. He planned to finish high school in Maine, but instead he got into drugs, dropped out after his freshman year, and never went back. He’s now off all drugs but marijuana, he said. But without a high school degree, his work options are limited. Plus, he has problems with authority, he said, making it hard to find a boss he’s able to work with.

So Twitch has opted out of the job market.

Most of the job growth in the coming decades will be for jobs either on the high-skill end of the spectrum, which require a college degree, or the low-skill end, with limited educational requirements, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Middle-tier jobs, which used to be the path to middle-class wages for people without a college degree, are increasingly rare.

“Where’s all the manufacturing jobs? Where’s all the port shipping jobs? The mills closed — what’s left?” Hawes, whose father worked in the paper mill in Jay until he was laid off a few years ago, asked rhetorically. “There are tourism jobs, but no one has a 5,000-person facility here. No one.”

There are jobs available, just maybe not the kind Twitch and his friends think they’re suited for. Between now and 2024, an additional 9,628 jobs will be added statewide in the fastest growing occupations encompassing health care, restaurants, and personal care, such as hairdressers, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

But to Twitch and his friends, these jobs — which are all in service industries — are either too highly skilled, or too feminine. Twitch wants a traditionally male job — one that’s outdoors and involves heavy lifting.

“The satisfaction of doing all the hard work — doing it right. That’s the work I like. Backbreaking work. You get the most satisfaction out of it,” he said.

For those in the business of job training, this is the big hurdle: when people can’t see the value in work they may have never imagined for themselves.

“There has to be a tipping point in that individual’s personal life and decision making where they feel that they have value to add to the workforce and are incentivized or feel that they have to go back into the workforce,” said Julie Rabinowitz, ‎director of policy, operations and communications at the Maine Department of Labor. “You have to want to do this. You have to be willing to take the risk to do it.”

3 major unknowns

The problem may be self-evident to Hawes and his friends: As they see it, dwindling opportunities for men like them with limited education and limited means drive them to government subsidies and drugs.

But the problem — and therefore any hope for a solution — is hidden to most Mainers.

There are no non-profit organizations lobbying on behalf of economic prosperity for middle-aged men, for example.

“They’re not exactly a popular focus group,” said Carol Sanborn, a paralegal for the law firm of McTeague Higbee, whose workers are represented by the International Union of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Sanborn has been involved in statewide efforts to improve employment options for workers who have been left behind by a changing economy.

“These men tend to isolate themselves. Because there are no programs for them, they have no visibility. Without visibility, there is no one to care,” she said.

There are three major unknowns about the prime-age men who have left Maine’s labor force. Answering these questions could help reconnect this stagnant and growing cohort of idle men to work.

How many of the prime-age non-working men have felonies?

It would make sense to assume that men are leaving the labor force in part because of rising incarceration rates, since more than 90 percent of prisoners in Maine and nationally are male. But the data don’t exist to test this theory, since the government does not collect information on the employment patterns of convicted felons.

Earlier this month, 2,150 Maine men were in prison, according to the Maine Department of Corrections. Most of them will be released and will have to answer “yes” on job applications that ask if they were ever convicted of a felony.

Because there are no government data on the employment status of people who were formerly incarcerated, economists have “almost entirely avoided it as an issue,” said Eberstadt, the American Enterprise Institute economist.

Anecdotally, Johnson, of the Somerset Economic Development Corp., has observed felony records to be “one of the big barriers” to employment for Maine men, though employers are starting to be more open to hiring people with criminal records in response to the workforce crunch.

Stuart MacLeod of Belfast, who graduated with an engineering degree from Maine Maritime Academy in 1994, said his felony — the result of selling marijuana in college — still haunts him and is one of the main factors keeping him from work, he believes. His “crippling” anxiety is another barrier, he said. MacLeod, now 47, has been out of the workforce for about a decade.

“They just look at my application, see that the [felony] check box has been ticked off, and move on,” said MacLeod. “It’s like I’m damaged goods.”

What is the role of addiction and despair?

Nearly half of men aged 25 to 54 who aren’t in the national labor force take pain medication daily, and in two thirds of those cases they take prescription pain medication, according to a 2016 paper by Princeton economist Alan Krueger.

What’s not known, however, is which came first. Are men turning to opiates and other drugs because they are out of work, or are they leaving work because they are addicted to drugs?

“I suspect causality runs in both directions, but I have not been able to untangle the direction of causality,” Krueger wrote in an email on Mar. 28. “But I do believe that the problem of excessive use of pain medication and the high reported incidence of feeling pain will need to be addressed in order to draw many of these individuals back to the labor force.”

Two other Princeton economists recently found that death rates are rising for middle-aged, less educated white Americans, a group that includes many of Maine’s disengaged men. They are dying disproportionately from what professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair” — suicides, drug overdoses and alcohol-related diseases.

Driving this mortality trend, Case and Deaton theorize, is the loss of steady middle-income jobs for Americans with a high school education or less.

While they are careful to say they do not know the cause of the increased death rates for certain, they say that it’s likely due to “a longterm process of decline, or of cumulative deprivation, rooted in the steady deterioration in job opportunities for people with low education.”

How can these men be reached?

Disengaged men are a difficult demographic to reach. For this article, the BDN spoke with dozens of men out of work. Yet just two agreed to speak on the record for more than a couple of minutes.

“They’re seldom their own best advocates,” said Sanborn, of the Machinists union. “Most of these people don’t have the communication skills. They don’t have any networking. They are set adrift in a world they are not equipped to deal with.”

They are also often embarrassed about their situation, so they are loath to broadcast it or seek support. “There’s such tremendous shame with these men,” said Dorrer. “You’re in a nosedive of self-esteem. It’s unlikely you’re going to reach out for help.”

It’s clear that the current economic development strategies are not working for this group of people, said Charles Colgan, an emeritus professor of public policy and planning at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School.

“There’s no real commitment to redeveloping economies or helping people navigate the difficulties of losing your job,” Colgan said. “We just basically say we’ll help out a little with unemployment and job training if you’re lucky, but basically you’re on your own. Based on the evidence, that strategy isn’t working.”

‘It’s hard to think about starting over’

MacLeod, from Belfast, almost lost his own life to despair. He has survived a suicide attempt and multiple drug overdoses. He’s now in recovery from addiction, but it’s a “constant struggle” to stay sober, he said.

Without steady work, he spends his days reading about drones and other technology on “nerdy websites,” playing online football, and doing occasional under-the-table plumbing jobs.

He also thinks a lot — “maybe a little too much” — about why it’s been so hard for him to find work.

“I don’t know if it’s that I’m not smart enough or not motivated enough, or that I just have too low self-esteem,” he wondered aloud.

MacLeod dreams of working one day as a mechanic for the Front Street Boat Yard in Belfast — a job he’s well-equipped to do thanks to his Maine Maritime Academy training.

But after so many let-downs in life, his expectations are low.

“I feel like I’ve made so many mistakes, it’s hard to think about starting over,” he said. “I have wicked anxiety now, so I don’t like new environments. But once I suffer through it, I should do all right.”

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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