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Tight Job Market, Adult Competitors

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Some 2.9 million high-school seniors are graduating from schools across the country this spring. Approximately 1.8 million of them will go on to college, but the other 1.1 million members of the Class of 1982 will enter the tightest job market in a long time.

Because of the nation's deep recession and record-high unemployment, in combination with sharp decreases in the scope of federal and privately sponsored training programs, job opportunities have reached a dismal low point. And the competition for those entry-level jobs that do exist is extremely intense.

In fact, employment experts say, the sectors that traditionally have employed inexperienced high-school graduates--construction companies, restaurants, and small businesses--have in many cases been the hardest hit by the economic slowdown and are shrinking dramatically. And those sectors that do have job openings tend to require advanced skills that high-school graduates generally do not have.

Severity to Vary by Region

The severity of the employment problem for new graduates will vary by region, according to some experts. But most acknowledge that, regardless of the region, young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who possess little or no previous employment experience or skill training will not have an easy time in their job search.

The Reagan Administration's response to the unique employment needs of the nation's unemployed young people will not improve the situation, according to labor market experts and researchers who have evaluated the Department of Labor's (dol) employment and training programs. They contend that with an overall youth-unemployment rate of 23 percent (48 percent for members of minority groups)--a rate that is the highest since the period following World War II--a stronger federal role is needed.

Moreover, under present economic conditions, few experts believe that the private sector is in a position to assume responsibility for the training programs formerly sponsored by the federal government--the strategy proposed by the Administration.

Labor Force to Swell

Although the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls) announced last month that a smaller number of students will be searching for summer jobs this year than did so in previous years because of the overall decline in the youth population, it nevertheless estimates that the labor force will swell during the summer months to approximately 27.1 million young people of high-school and college age.

And that surge of students looking for work will be in addition to a labor force that included approximately 10 million unemployed persons during April, according to figures issued by the bls last month. The bls does not keep statistics on the number of job openings for which students or older workers could qualify. But, as one indication of the overall youth-employment problem, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported in April that officials from more than half of the 125 cities responding to a survey did not expect to receive any private support in the way of money or jobs this summer.

"We have found the business community receptive," said Beth Denniston of the National Alliance of Business, a coalition of executives from business, government, and labor groups. "But it is hard times out there, especially in the manufacturing sectors."

Ms. Denniston said that with so many workers already laid off, it is unreasonable to expect businesses to hire any new employees.

That assessment was shared by William L. Heartwell Jr., executive vice president of the Interstate Conference of Employment Securities Agencies Inc., which represents employment-services agencies in the 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. For the high-school graduates in particular, he said, this summer will be especially difficult because of the economy.

"The job opportunities are just not there," Mr. Heartwell added. "Companies have had to cut back drastically. For the first time, we are seeing college graduates working in jobs that are trainee positions.''

'Displaced' Workers

In addition, high-school graduates will also face competition from older, unemployed workers who have been "displaced" by the economic recession, according to David Gottlieb, professor of sociology and assistant to the president of the University of Houston System. "I don't see anything on the horizon except a continuously dismal picture, particularly for female and minority youth," he said.

"There's less and less room at the top and so people are looking more at entry-level jobs," Mr. Gottlieb explained. "Older people will be competing for jobs that were once the domain of kids," he said, pointing to fast-food restaurants and other employment sectors requiring a low level of skills.

State employment agencies, Mr. Heartwell added, are having difficulty finding jobs for unemployed auto, steel, and rubber workers "who are trying to get into some kind of training program commensurate with what they've been doing over the years."

The 9.4 percent unemployment rate in April guarantees that this year's graduates will not be able "to walk right into" factory jobs as in previous years because those jobs just don't exist, according to Ellen Vollinger, executive director of National Committee for Full Employment, a research and lobbying organization.

Of this year's graduates, it is the general-education students who most concern Madeleine B. Hemmings, an associate director of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. "My concern is whether they got enough general education; they could end up with nothing," she said, adding that the work environment demands strong basic skills.

As a result of federal reductions in employment and training programs--and despite reductions in financial aid--Mr. Gottlieb said he believes more high-school students will opt to "stay in school" or to enlist in the military.

Community Colleges

"Community colleges will prosper during times like these," he said. Mr. Gottlieb, whose interviews with military recruits in 1979 were published in the book, Babes in Arms, said that "more and more youth who can't make it in the labor force" will be choosing to volunteer for some branch of the military.

In fact, the Department of Defense would like to see the current successful recruiting trend continue.

Aided largely by the country's ailing private sector and by legislation increasing military pay and bonuses, all four military branches met or exceeded their recruiting objectives for fiscal 1981. In addition, for the first half of fiscal 1982, "recruiting results remain encouraging and are slightly better than a year ago," according to the testimony of Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, and logistics, before the Senate Appropriations Committee last month.

In 1981, there were more than 300,000 volunteers, of whom 81 percent were high-school graduates, Mr. Korb told the Senate panel. And, he said, while nongraduates would not be turned away in a "difficult recruiting market," the department would prefer to recruit people who have a high-school diploma.

Based on his experience with recruits, Mr. Gottlieb said, three years in the military is an acceptable career choice. He said that young blacks in particular are more likely to use the military as "an avenue for career mobility."

"It's a viable alternative to being on the streets while one matures. As one gets older, the employment op-portunities are likely to increase."

Ms. Vollinger argues, however, that the Administration's policy of reducing support for employment and training programs while increasing Defense Department programs will result in removing a career choice for many high-school graduates.

'A Sad Alternative'

"It's a sad alternative if in fact that is what the government is saying to young people," she said. "To have to be forced to go in [the military] because the goverment says there's no other option. ... That's pretty sad."

Ms. Vollinger characterized the Administration's employment and training legislation as the weakest of the three proposals currently under consideration by Congress because it does not provide a separate program for young people.

Evaluations of the employment and training programs were required under provisions of the current Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. However, according to Mr. Gottlieb, those results are being ignored.

He and other employment specialists believe that the results of those evaluations and participants follow-up studies demonstrate that, in general, the various employment and training programs are effective in addressing the unique problems of out-of-school youths and that program participants are likely to find a job and remain employed.

"It's terribly frustrating," Mr. Gottlieb said. "This Administration has prided itself on good investments and frugality" and yet, he added, disregarding the program evaluation results amounts to a waste of thousands of dollars.

The Administration has requested $2.4 billion for fiscal 1983, considerably lower than the House's $6-billion proposal and the Senate's estimated $3.9-billion proposal. Under the Administration's proposal, local sponsors of programs would be required to spend at least 50 percent of their federal funds for persons 25 years old or younger.

Opponents of the Administration's proposals, portions of which have been drafted into the Senate's legislation, argue that simply grouping all youth in one category will not adequately address the variety of needs they possess and that the training programs should be targeted.

"Simply turning over the money to the states is just not going to cut it," Mr. Gottlieb said. "States will receive the money and it will be administered by people who don't know what's been done."

'Performance Standards'

Speaking in support of the Administration's proposal, Ms. Hemmings said that "performance standards will force local programs' operators to find out what works and doesn't work." And she added that the employment and training programs cannot solve the longstanding employment problems of the youth population stemming from their poor performance in school.

In Pontiac, Mich., where the economic slump has forced thousands of unemployed workers to seek employment alternatives and retraining programs, high-school students are encountering fierce competition for jobs, according to Sally E. Green, a placement specialist and youth advisor for the school district's ceta-supported job-placement services. Ms. Green said this year's high-school graduates from the area will be among those students competing for 130 summer job-training positions.

"We have so many more applications than we can accommodate," Ms. Green said of this summer's program. And next year, she said, federal support for the program will be further reduced.

Labor-Market Problem

The mix of youths and adult workers needing both jobs and training is becoming a major labor-market problem, according to Ms. Vollinger. She explained that "help wanted" advertisements are going unanswered because of the increasing demand for skilled and professional workers.

Many unemployed adults are unable to fill those positions and are in need of retraining, Ms. Vollinger added. "High-school graduates are just not going to be able to fill those positions."

But, Mr. Gottlieb noted, high-school graduates have rarely had as their first jobs those that require specific skills, and employers "do not expect kids to stay on those [entry-level] jobs for very long."

Whether a recent graduate finds a job "has very little to do with skill or cognitive ability," Mr. Gottlieb added. "[The employer's] best predictor is a high-school diploma."

But in time like these, most experts note, high-school graduates are painfully discovering that even that is not a very accurate predictor.

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