Where are the Boys?

Fewer young Alberta men are choosing—or succeeding at—post-secondary.

By Janice Paskey

It’s Friday at about 8:00 p.m., and Jeremy Paulgaard has just come in from work when he calls. He’s hung up the keys to his new Dodge Mega Cab Diesel and is relaxing at home. Paulgaard, 22, grew up on a cattle and grain farm in nearby Provost as one of five kids, and works as a self-employed contractor maintaining oil rigs. But he’s returning a call to talk about what he’s not doing.

That would be studying. When Paulgaard graduated high school in 2007, his two eldest brothers were already working at oil services jobs near Lloydminster, while his twin took a local oil patch job. His sister graduated with a nursing degree but works in a bank. Jeremy was the only boy in the family to give higher education a whirl, leaving home to study business at NAIT in Edmonton. But he dropped out in February 2008 after just six months. “I quit because I knew there was work out there,” he says. “I didn’t want to be stuck in a classroom when I knew I could be making money.”

So Paulgaard returned to his hometown, near the Saskatchewan boundary. He promptly landed a job checking oil rigs for $45 an hour. And he loved it. “I’m my own boss,” he says. “I’m out on the road every day.”

Then he capitalized further. Paulgaard took out a loan and launched j-Gaard Contracting. He purchased a steamer—machinery that keeps oil wells from freezing—and now bills $126 per hour and works 180 hours a month. After two years, he bought a home with his girlfriend and trades in his truck every year. He has an investment portfolio, including stocks and RRSPs, and donates to the United Way. By any account, it’s a fairly robust start for a kid with a high school education.

Paulgaard’s mother, Marcella, isn’t concerned about his lack of schooling. And Paulgaard says he feels further ahead than his friends in school with student loans. “The only way I would go back to school is if the oil field crashed,” he says.

High wages, due to commodity prices, attract a lot of young men. But what about the longer term?

Jeremy’s sentiments resonate in Alberta. This province has had fewer men per capita studying beyond high school, especially at university, than any other province over the past decade. Some 63 per cent of men aged 17–24 aren’t enrolled in any program, and only about 12 per cent of male youth are at university and 6 per cent at college. Technical courses and trades still attract mostly men (65 per cent), and our colleges are split fairly evenly (53 per cent female, 47 per cent male). The gender divide is widest at Alberta’s universities: 60/40, similar to a Canada-wide trend—except that a lower percentage of Albertans attend post-secondary in the first place.

University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera took some criticism last year when she noted the declining number of male students. “We are not attracting young men in the numbers we should,” she said. Her comments were met with a satirical poster campaign that suggested she wanted female students to drop out. To answer her critics: Sure, men still make more money overall than women, and many male CEOs are really, really well paid. But a societal trend is underway, especially in Alberta, with women headed in one direction and men in another. Samarasekera was right to express concern.

Higher education may not be for everyone. But, generally, the more education you have, the better off you are and the better off society is. People with higher education have better health, a deeper world view, a greater ability to understand or develop new ideas and technologies and are more likely to volunteer and to vote, according to numerous studies from Canada and the US.

But the Alberta government is more matter-of-fact. “Higher education is a gateway to higher earnings,” it states. In encouraging high school students to consider post-secondary, it notes that a 25- to 34-year-old university graduate earns 37 per cent more than a high school graduate, but that gap doubles when they reach 45–65 years of age. Protection from unemployment, too, is notable: 93 per cent of university graduates are employed, but only 75 per cent of those with no more than high school are employed. Graduates of professional schools (law, accounting, medicine) have full employment.

Alberta is an interesting case, though. We have a strong economy at the moment, owing to oil prices. High-paying oilpatch jobs are available right out of school. So why listen to the government or a bunch of moralizing academics about staying in school? That’s what Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente argued a few years back when she counselled a young man to “run, run, run away and get a job in the oil sands” rather than “sit through [university] lectures that bore [you] to stupefaction and crank out term papers that are scarcely literate.”

Why, indeed? Economist Christine Neill bit, since Wente’s advice ran counter to what she knew. Neill teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University and specializes in education economics. She’d already studied the effect of commodity prices on enrolments in her native Australia and has now pored through Canadian data. She’s found that the benefits of choosing work over post-secondary are short-term only.

“Leaving without post-secondary reduces your lifetime earnings,” she explains in a telephone interview. “These high wages, due to commodity prices, are going to attract a lot of people from school at the moment, but what does this do in the longer term?”

She has also examined enrolment in Canada’s oil-rich provinces. “I was surprised to find that Alberta has such a low (post-secondary) enrolment rate, even lower than PEI and Labrador,” she says. Alberta’s enrolment rate in higher education is about 13 per cent, while the Canadian average is 18 per cent for males aged 17–24. This gap grew wider after 2004; before then, Alberta was never more than five percentage points off the average.

Was oil the reason? Yes, says Neill—at least in part. She and her co-author found that a $50 rise in the price of oil corresponded to a 2–5 per cent decline in male participation in post-secondary, or 10 per cent fewer men in school and 20 per cent fewer in university. “These are very large effects,” she says. “And they’re much more pronounced for men than women.” Tuition can be a deterrent to enrolment, she says, but a high oil price had double the impact of a $1,000 rise in tuition.

Oil prices are volatile, as we know. So the crux for Alberta is a policy challenge that professor Neill calls “counter-cyclical funding.” In an academic article, she explains that oil-rich provinces such as Alberta need to increase spending on education “not during an economic boom, when revenues are flowing into provincial coffers… but rather in periods of recession, when the demand for university access among youth is higher.” Not surprisingly, she found that governments find it hard to invest in education as pressure mounts to cut spending. “Without an increase in government funding, or other sources of university financing such as tuition fees, educational attainment may be negatively affected among young people in oil-rich provinces during economic downturns associated with oil price declines.”

University of Calgary economist Ana Ferrer and colleagues David Green and Herb Emery agree that Alberta needs to fund more spaces during an oil bust. But they see some upside to the opportunities that divert grads from higher education in the short term. The researchers studied the 1973–1981 oil boom and concluded that education was often merely delayed rather than permanently curtailed. And, better, workers had more money for school. “A temporary resource boom could help students finance more education than otherwise would have been possible,” they conclude.

More recently, Ferrer looked at the effects of delaying school. Together with Alicia Menendez of the University of Chicago, she studied a 1995 Canadian cohort and found that those who worked for a few years before returning to trade school, college or university earned substantially more two to five years after graduation than those who went straight from high school.

Delaying education also reinforced commitment to later studies. For those unsure whether university was worth the cost, figuring it out before enrolling makes sense. Those who went back to school after working had a “smoother transition [back into] to the labour market,” wrote Ferrer and Menendez. “Delaying post-secondary education might have, at least for certain students, a productive value because it allows them to learn about the returns to post-secondary education, or which skills the market demands.”

Still, there’s the likelihood that many students, especially young men coming of age during boom times, won’t even complete high school, which makes it harder to upgrade later, let alone go further in their studies. “It’s for these young men that measures should be taken to facilitate staying or returning to school,” Ferrer tells me.

When I cast about for a “late-blooming” learner to talk to, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers suggests Ryan Miller. At 32, he recently graduated with a petroleum engineering diploma from SAIT. He talks while on a work break from his new office in Calgary, and tells me he grew up near Alder Flats, 120 km southwest of Edmonton. “I was sick of high school. I didn’t put anything into it,” he says. Instead, Miller went toward the “huge draw” of oil field money. He worked as a labourer before his employer, PennWest, moved him to its Drayton Valley office to work on cost estimates. “I ended up working with engineers and other educated folk,” he says. “I got to see the other side of the business. I had the practice behind me but didn’t have the knowledge to advance.”

In that office, Miller met his future wife, an engineering intern from the University of Alberta. His perspective changed. “I could see where my job was going to be in 30 years, and I didn’t want to be held back,” he says. Miller quit work “cold turkey” and returned to SAIT after eight years in the field.

“I was scared,” he admits. First, he had to spend a year to upgrade his high school marks, then was accepted into the petroleum engineering program, graduated, and is now heading to Montana to complete his degree. Until he finishes, Miller fits another relatively new trend for Alberta males: he’s married to a woman who has better educational credentials than he does.

The challenges for Alberta’s male students go beyond the lure of the oilpatch, however. As with Miller, many boys and men simply don’t like high school, and they don’t do as well at it as the girls. Too often, post-secondary is viewed as more of the same—or is out of the question due to low marks.

“Why are most university students women?” Statistics Canada researchers Marc Frenette and Klarka Zeman asked in a 2007 research paper. They found, as Samarasekera noted, that Canadian universities have become the domain of women: 58 per cent of Canadian graduates are now female, a drastic reversal from two decades earlier when 68 per cent of graduates were men. The researchers found that girls were more likely to be in university because they perform better on standardized tests, have higher overall marks, spend more time on homework, are less likely to repeat a grade and have higher parental expectations.

Frenette and Zeman cite other factors as well for the ascendancy of female students, including teaching strategies better suited to girls, and few male teachers. The pair cite research about the powerful effect of same-sex teachers: “It is estimated that just one year with a male English teacher would eliminate nearly one-third of the gender gap in reading performance among 13-year-olds,” they write, though it “would do so by improving the performance of boys and hurting that of girls.”

There are about 33,000 female teachers and 13,000 male ones working in Alberta. The Alberta Teachers’ Association doesn’t record gender trends and can’t say whether the proportion of male teachers has gone down. However, in a 2004 ATA Magazine article, “Kindness, Warning, Precept and Praise: The Fading Impact of Male Teachers,” Alberta education researchers Jim Parsons and Natasja Larson give empirical evidence: “Visit a school today and one sees that there are fewer male teachers in general… Fewer men are becoming teachers and of the ones who are, few are becoming elementary teachers.” Across Canada, only 17 per cent of elementary teachers are men, down from 21 per cent in 1997.

Cameron May is one of the rare ones. “Many students say to me ‘You’re the first male teacher I’ve ever had.’” He did his training with elementary kids, and currently teaches Grade 7 in the village of Beiseker, an hour northeast of Calgary.

It’s a challenge, says the 31-year-old as we speak over the phone. “It’s 24/7,” he says. “It’s mind, body and soul.” As a Calgary kid who wasn’t a big fan of school (“I thought ‘show me, don’t tell me’ ”), he’s keenly aware of gender differences that can play out in class. “Sometimes I look at the boys, and I’m losing them, and have to change what I’m doing.” He thinks that boys who do well have parents who are monitoring and pushing them.

May says he’s an unlikely teacher: he wasn’t big on school. He had high school marks in the 60s and 70s, studied business for a year at the U of C, switched to psychology and graduated with a BA. He worked at various arts organizations in Calgary, including a stint as an educator at the Glenbow Museum. That led him back to the U of C for a teaching degree at 27. May says he ran into guys he knew from high school. “They’d been out working like me, but they were back.”

May thought his unique qualities—including his gender—could help other students. “I like learning and thought I would like to pass the learning on,” he says. “I thought perhaps I could tailor my teaching style to make class more engaging.”

The people who teach teachers are thinking about the same challenges. U of C dean of Education Dennis Sumara and assistant dean Sharon Friesen sit down to talk about teacher training and student achievement. “Teaching is a completely different field than it was 10 years ago because of advances in neurology and behavioural sciences,” says Sumara, who taught grade school in Taber. He thinks teaching strategies are more important than the teacher’s gender. “To be good at anything, you need challenging, meaningful activities,” he says. “It’s the case when teaching. There may be cultural expectations, and this may be a reason that girls tend to work harder.” His mission is to create teachers who can communicate the expectation that boys should believe they can succeed. “Then we’d see the achievement gap narrowed.”

While teachers focus on cognitive skills, some analysts just focus on the cold, hard facts—what’s an education worth, anyway?

University of Guelph researchers show that numbers talk. Women reap more of a “university premium” than men. The university premium measures the additional income earned by someone with a university degree compared to someone with a high school diploma. Author Michael Hoy notes: “For females, this premium ranged from 61 per cent in 1977 to 103 per cent in 2005, while for males it was 24 per cent in 1977 and 54 per cent in 2005. Not only has the university premium been higher for females throughout this time period, but it has grown more as well (an increase of 42 percentage points for females compared to 30 percentage points for males.”

Indeed, Hoy and colleagues aren’t crying the blues for men. “The higher post-secondary attendance rate of women may not be something that should be rectified through programs that promote more male vs. female post-secondary attendance,” write Hoy and his co-authors. “I think whoever goes, goes,” Hoy adds in a telephone interview. His research team cites other experts who think that the growing enrolment imbalance may eventually address the wage imbalance that persists between men and women.

What else is at play here in Alberta? Rural boys are less likely to go on to post-secondary, and Alberta is one-fifth rural. Males from low-income families are less likely to enrol in higher education than low-income women. And Aboriginal men are the least likely of all to go on in studies, especially to university.

Given the greater “university premium” for women, it perhaps makes sense that many young, economically vulnerable men don’t go on to post-secondary. But do they also suffer from unreasonably low expectations? Ruth Kleinbub thinks so. She and her husband, a welder, moved to Fort McMurray 30 years ago. She taught upgrading and work/study programs to Aboriginal men on reserves. Oil companies in Fort McMurray have generous employment programs for Aboriginal youth. But Kleinbub was concerned that her Aboriginal male students were streamed too quickly into trades programs. “I think they’re limited in what they dream and their hopes for the future,” she says. “I tell them: ‘What can you dream?’ not ‘What’s a good day?’ A dream is totally something different.”

She sees young men whose path seems set too early. “I see young men who have never made a decision in their lives. They get picked up by the company bus, work, and then go home.” Kleinbub saw her own son nearly get streamed into trades in high school before she and her husband intervened. Without the right credits, university would not have been an option for him. Her son left for the University of Waterloo, became a mathematician and now owns a small consulting company in Ontario.

Few would disagree: education matters. But how much schooling, for whom, and when? For Alberta’s young men, there is no one path to personal and financial fulfillment. In the words of Jeremy Paulgaard’s mother, Marcella, “The world needs all kinds of people.” She’s right, of course. It’s hard to tell a satisfied 22-year-old earning six figures that he’s suffering from some sort of false consciousness when he’s happy running his own business, driving his own truck, living in his own house and building a life in his hometown surrounded by family and friends.

And yet we also know about the long-term value of post-secondary education, which is about more than simply higher lifetime earnings and greater resilience to economic busts. So it’s equally gratifying to see Ryan Miller change his mind about his future and take the opportunity to go back to school, upgrade and expand his options. Similarly, we need to encourage more young males like Cameron May to buck the trend, take the plunge and teach our boys—so that they might get more out of school in the first place.

Writer and editor Janice Paskey teaches journalism at Mount Royal University and is mother to two school-aged boys.

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