Skipping college leads to limited opportunity
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Towan Hall hopes one day to have a job working with youths who have no fathers in their lives. But right now, Mr. Hall, 23, of Pittsburgh's Central North Side, is trying to support his wife, who is unemployed, and two children on $9 an hour as head photo specialist at a Walgreens in Ross.
Mr. Hall graduated from Oliver High School in 2007. His first child was born the same year. He needed to work, with no time for college. Asked about going back to school, Mr. Hall said, "One day, but I got kids. If I go back to school, I'd lose 10 hours a week."
Mr. Hall is part of a corps of nearly invisible people who graduated from high school between 2006 and last year, then found themselves scuffling in a desert of limited opportunity, according to a highly anticipated national survey from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, released Wednesday.
Among the findings for recent high school graduates who are not enrolled in college full time:
• Just 27 percent have full-time jobs.
• Almost 1 in 3 is unemployed.
• Ninety percent are paid hourly, with the current median hourly wage for full-time workers at just $9.25 -- barely sufficient to keep them out of poverty.
"It's striking how severe young people's problems are," said Carl Van Horn, co-author of the study and the director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers. "These are folks at the beginning of their work lives already feeling very pessimistic about themselves.
"The lesson they're getting is, 'I'm not likely to be successful.' The economy today will not lead you to a comfortable life. That's not something we associate with the American idea that if you work hard, you get ahead."
The study is titled "Left Out. Forgotten? Recent High School Graduates and the Great Recession." Conducted in April, it is a nationally representative sample of 544 recent high school graduates.
The sample includes those who graduated before and during the recession. The study shows that although the U.S. economy has been registering growth, the work situation for young people without post-secondary degrees has remained dire.
Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, said the dwindling manufacturing industry has negatively impacted high school graduates' ability to find well-paying jobs with opportunities for advancement.
"The classic story that gets told, and often Pittsburgh is used as the example, is that back in the '70s you could go and a find a job in a steel mill without having a college degree," he said. "If you were fortunate enough to get one of those manufacturing jobs, it provided an income that was relatively high and allowed you to have a middle-class lifestyle, and that income tended to grow over time."
Oftentimes steel companies would provide workers with training to advance their careers and their salaries.
Now high school graduates are much more likely to find work in the service industry, where wages of the lowest-paid employees grow the slowest and to move up you need to finance your own college degree.
"If you want to climb the ladder, you're going to have a much tougher climb," he said.
Today sectors that provide desirable employment in the Pittsburgh area are often out of reach without specialized training.
"While steel has become less important, health care has become a lot more important in your region," Mr. Price said. "There are very good jobs in the health care sector, but these are jobs that require that you become a doctor or a nurse."
Employers typically seek more highly educated people, not because they have greater skills, but because they are believed to be better workers, since they showed up for college courses and completed them, workforce experts say.
That's bad news for Ronald Santiago, 23, a 2008 graduate of Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Philadelphia.
After high school, Mr. Santiago, who lives in Philadelphia, believed college would cost too much money and be too difficult to master.
He got a part-time job working in the doors and windows department of a Home Depot, then started thinking he could study computer technology.
"Now, I know that a college degree means better pay," Mr. Santiago said. "It means a better future. I want to go to school but can't leave work. I have big regrets."
The Heldrich study also discovered that high school graduates experience frequent job changes. Four in 10 say they had been at their current job less than a year, and 7 in 10 say it has been less than two years.
Among the more than 30 percent who are unemployed, those who graduated in the recession era are unemployed at a rate of 37 percent, while those who graduated before the recession have a 23 percent unemployment rate.
Many surveyed say they had planned to attend college when they started high school. But 40 percent say they could not afford the cost of full-time college; a further 30 percent say they need to work. And 10 percent say children or family members precluded chances at higher education.
About 15 percent surveyed said they were not interested in college, and 5 percent said they did not need post-secondary education for what they wanted to do in life.
Throughout America, 30 percent of all people who graduate high school end up with a college degree, federal education statistics show.
With a dismal economy shaping their world view, those surveyed say by a ratio of 4-1 that they expect their generation to do less well financially than the one before it.
Nearly 60 percent of high school graduates still live with their parents or relatives, twice as many as recent college graduates of the same age, the survey says.
Mr. Hall is glad just to have his job at Walgreens. He was on unemployment until he got the job in September. During his search, he ran up against the many others in need of work. "I applied for a job at Best Buy in July. There were 200 people for five slots."
For his first year out of high school, Mr. Hall worked for Adagio Health providing sex education to people in group homes and homeless shelters. But without a car, working long hours and taking the bus around the city for only $8 an hour was too much. He said he checked back with the company recently, but he wasn't sure he could get a job if he wanted to. "With the economy, they've had major cutbacks," he said.
First Published June 7, 2012 12:00 am