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Knowledge economy is leaving some behind

The gap is widening between the poor and the rich in Massachusetts

Chameise Few, 21, is working to complete her high school diploma at Boston Adult Technical Academy. After graduating next year, she hopes to go on to college and become a nurse.

Suzanne Kreiter/GLobe Staff

Chameise Few, 21, is working to complete her high school diploma at Boston Adult Technical Academy. After graduating next year, she hopes to go on to college and become a nurse.

Chameise Few, an unemployed single mother, has interviewed for nearly a dozen jobs in child care and retail over the past 18 months. Each time, she begins with high hopes, only to see them dashed as soon as employers learn she quit high school in the 11th grade.

“I feel very upset and let down because I know I could do that job,” said Few, choking up as she recalled a recent rejection for a child-care job. “I feel like I’d get the same answer over and over and over again.”

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Few, 21, of Dorchester, is among the thousands of Massachusetts residents with limited education who continue to experience Depression-era levels of unemployment some four years after the last recession. As the economy accelerates its shift toward knowledge-based industries, rewarding the best educated and wealthiest households, people like Few are getting left further behind, according to a new study from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.

The result is a widening gap between the rich and poor that threatens to become more entrenched as education and skills play larger roles in the economy, said Andrew Sum, the center’s director. Class — education and income — increasingly determines not only earnings, but also whether some people have jobs at all.

In Massachusetts, 1 in 5 workers, or 20 percent, from households with incomes of less than $20,000 a year are jobless, compared with just 3.3 percent of workers from households earning more than $150,000 annually, according to the report’s analysis of census data. About 19 percent of high school dropouts are jobless — nearly triple the state’s overall unemployment rate of 7.2 percent — compared with just over 3 percent for those with master’s degrees.

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The gap becomes more pronounced using a broader measure of unemployment that includes people working part time because they can’t find full-time jobs, and those who have given up looking and are no longer counted as unemployed.

In Massachusetts, 55 percent of workers with less than a high school diploma living in households with annual incomes of less than $20,000 were unemployed, underemployed, or no longer searching for jobs, according to the Northeastern study, compared with about 3 percent of those with master’s degrees from households earning more than $150,000 a year.

Nationally, the divide is narrower. About 47 percent of workers without a high school diploma, from households earning less than $20,000 a year, were unemployed, underemployed, or no longer searching for jobs, compared with about 4 percent of those with master’s degrees in households earning $150,000 a year.

“We are much more unequal than the country,” Sum said. “We are what I call the ‘Un-Commonwealth of Massachusetts.’ ”

The gap in Massachusetts has grown faster than the nation as whole because the state’s economy is dominated by knowledge industries such as technology, life sciences, and financial services, Sum said. As education becomes inextricably linked to earnings, the gap is likely to become harder to close as well-off families press their advantages, sending children to private schools, hiring tutors and SAT prep coaches, and paying for college and graduate school.

Few’s parents never married. Her father, who shuttled Few and her younger sister between homes in Boston and never attended college, scrambled to earn a living as a security guard and a maintenance man. After his death of heart disease at 38, the girls lived with their mother. At 16, Few became pregnant and dropped out of Community Academy in Jamaica Plain.

Every day is a struggle for Few, who now cares for two girls, ages 4 years and 6 months, while trying to finish her diploma at Boston Adult Technical Academy. She receives $700 a month in welfare and lives with her mother.

“It’s really hard,” Few said. “I have to borrow things. I have my boyfriend, but he works two jobs.”

In contrast, Kees Been’s father went to college, and his parents insisted that he get an education while growing up in the Netherlands. Been earned a master’s degree in molecular biology from the Dutch University of Agriculture and an MBA from the Institut Europeen d’Administration des Affaires in Paris.

The combination helped Been advance in the biotechnology industry, becoming chief executive of EnVivo Pharmaceuticals, a Watertown developer of treatments for schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. When Been resigned earlier this year, he quickly received several job offers, before accepting the CEO post at Lysosomal Therapeutics, a start-up backed by former Genzyme chief Henri A. Termeer. He will receive a six-figure salary and stock that could be worth much more should the company go public.

“People who have advanced degrees — it’s easier to have better relationships,” said Been, 55, of Weston. “I found my job so quickly because I have a big network. It’s a self-enforcing cycle. When you’re undereducated or lower level, you’re stuck.”

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Blue-collar workers were hit hard in the recession. In Massachusetts, construction shed more than 25 percent of its jobs during the downturn while manufacturing employment has shrunk 14 percent since the recession began at the end of 2007.

That has left blue-collar workers competing for lower-paying service jobs, often against young college graduates having difficulty breaking into a tough job market.

Dale Tharp, 53 of Dorchester, dropped out of high school. Raised in New Hampshire, neither his father, stepfather, nor mother made it past high school. He worked at a boot factory before joining the Marine Corps at 17, where he earned his GED.

He returned home after his discharge in 1979, married, and made his living doing odd jobs. After his marriage ended in 2011, he decided to start over in Boston, but has struggled to find work.

He lived for a time in a veterans shelter on Court Street in Boston before finding subsidized housing in Dorchester, trying to survive on a part-time job that pays $10 an hour. He has applied at restaurants, most recently as a server, only to lose out to younger, better-educated applicants.

“It’s dog-eat-dog out there,” Tharp said.

The difference a degree can make is striking. In Massachusetts, the jobless rate among those who attended, but did not graduate college, is 9.4 percent, more than double the 4.2 percent for workers with bachelor’s degrees, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies.

Like Tharp, John M. Kawola, 47, moved to Boston looking for work. But his experience was completely different. His parents — a teacher and a social worker — went to college, and there was no question that he would go. Arriving from the Albany, N.Y., area 15 years ago with degrees in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an MBA from Union College, Kawola landed a job as a executive vice president of sales for ZCorp., a 3-D printing company in Burlington. By 2008, he was chief executive.

After 3D Systems of Rock Hill, S.C., bought Z Corp. in 2012, Kawola took a year off. In December, Kawola accepted the chief executive post at Harvest Automation, a Billerica company that develops robots for the agriculture industry.

“I see Boston and Massachusetts as places where the economy is changing in good ways and in some ways that are leaving people behind,” Kawola said. “For someone who is highly educated, this is a great place to be.”

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At one time, manufacturing jobs provided the first step on the economic ladder for those with limited education, allowing them to make good livings, support families, and send children to college. As those opportunities vanish, Northeastern’s Sum said, the state and nation need to target lower-income groups with education and training programs linked closely to employers, while trying wage subsidies and other incentives to encourage hiring the unemployed and underemployed.

“What we really need,” Sum added, “are employers creating a lot of jobs to put these people in.”

Workforce training agencies are beginning to reshape programs to provide pathways to degrees. Jewish Vocational Service in Boston now enrolls about 100 people a year in Bridges to College, a 24-week program to help young and working adults get into college-credit programs, typically at community colleges.

“Five years ago, we didn’t have that service,” said Jerry Rubin, the JVS chief executive. “What drives so much growth in Massachusetts is health care, life sciences, finance, and higher education. It requires a postsecondary education to get a better job.”

Tharp recognizes his lack of schooling put him in a hole. He is now enrolled in IMPACT Employment Services, a training program operated by the Pine Street Inn. He recently started work as a chef’s assistant at St. Anthony’s Shrine. His dream, he said, is to use his veteran’s benefits to attend culinary school.

Last summer, Few connected with the Boston Private Industry Council and is now working toward her diploma at the Boston Adult Technical Academy, an alternative public school for students ages 19 to 22. She hopes to go to college and become a nurse when she graduates next year.

Few said she regrets dropping out.

“It’s a struggle,” she said. “You need your education to make money and to be comfortable, or you’ll be stuck at minimum wage.”

Edward Mason can be reached at Edward@EdwardMason.net. Find on him on Twitter @EBMason.
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