Job Outlook for Trained Grads Bright as Ever
With the nation's unemployment level at a 23-year low, new high school graduates with vocational training and apprenticeship experience may be poised for a quick start along their career paths.
Their best opportunities are likely to come in manufacturing, finance, computers, and service industries, experts say.
"Businesses can hardly wait to hire students, because unemployment is so low and demand for skilled workers so high," said Tom Holdsworth, a spokesman for the Leesburg, Va.-based Vocational Industrial Clubs of America.
In addition to helping high school graduates find jobs, the tight labor market could encourage more employers to reach out to students while they're still in school, said Sarah Zak, the press secretary for the National School-to-Work Office, a federal agency in Washington.
The low unemployment rate "opens the door for internships and job shadowing," Ms. Zak said. "It helps students who are in traditional vocational education, but it also helps businesses who would like to get into schools and train students."
The U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 4.8 percent in May; for 16- to 19-year-olds, the rate was 15.6 percent, just slightly up from April's rate of 15.4 percent, which was the lowest since 1990.
The overall figures mask significant differences by race. The unemployment rate last month for white teenagers was 12.7 percent; for black teens, it was 33.2 percent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide comparable data for Hispanic teenagers.
The unemployment rate measures the number of people out of work who are looking for jobs, adjusted for such factors as seasonal variations.
More Skills Needed
Even in today's robust economy, which was growing at a 5.8 percent annual rate in the first three months of the year, a high school diploma does not guarantee that a graduate will get a good job, economists are quick to note.
"You're just flat-out better off with some training beyond high school," said James Franklin, a senior economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. Department of Labor. "Otherwise you end up in the service sector in some sort of capacity that doesn't require a lot of training."
That's because even many entry-level jobs these days require skills beyond those associated with a high school diploma, said Charles Licari, a spokesman for General Motors Corp.
"Job requirements are changing now," Mr. Licari said. "There's new technologies being introduced. On the factory floor, the skill levels are not the same that you had there 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago."
But for those teenagers who have attained such skill levels through vocational programs or internships, this is an opportune time to be entering the workforce.
During her senior year at Foreman High School in Chicago, Latoya Brown gained valuable experience working in a hospital admitting area. Last month, shortly before graduating, she was hired as a billing and customer-service representative at a local office of Tele-Communications Inc.
Ms. Brown, 17, describes her employment search with a mixture of pride and relief.
"I had experience, I learned how to do interviews," said Ms. Brown, who will earn $9.80 an hour. "A lot of my friends, they're still coming out of high school and making [the minimum wage]."
At the Hermitage Technical Center in Virginia's Henrico County, outside Richmond, "we cannot complete enough good students to fill the market," said Brenda Fahed, the center's guidance director.
Hermitage offers what Principal Harvey Crone describes as a "tech prep" focus to students in the county's seven high schools who come to the vocational center for a minimum of two or three hours each day.
The skills taught at Hermitage include automotive technology, first aid, and cooking.
Each of the one- and two-year programs offered is designed to prepare students both for continuing education, through associate's and bachelor's degree studies, and immediate career entry. All students must meet competency requirements related to their fields.
With the Richmond metropolitan area's unemployment rate at 3.9 percent, "the demand in this area is up, significantly up, for skilled people," Mr. Crone said.
The heightened demand for workers also is creating better opportunities for students who intend to go to college but want to gain work experience while they're still in high school.
Through a youth-apprenticeship program administered by the Green Bay (Wis.) Chamber of Commerce, Chad Wing has been working at Norwest Bank for the past two years, serving as a teller, customer-service representative, and loan officer.
A recent graduate of Green Bay Preble High School, he plans to enroll this fall at St. Norbert's College in Green Bay and continue working 20 to 22 hours a week.
"I'm 18 years old, working this type of job. My future outlook is very good, compared to other students my age," Mr. Wing said.
In Lehigh Valley, Pa., Diane Donaher helps match businesses with many of the 4,500 students enrolled in the area's vocational-technical industry schools. With manufacturing and service-industry productivity on the rise, students are finding opportunities both before and after graduation, said Ms. Donaher, the executive director of the Lehigh Industry Council.
"Students are not only placed after graduation," she said. "They're working their cooperative positions knowing those positions are open."
A Bright Summer
The national job outlook, coupled with local youth initiatives, should also spell success for many students searching for summer work.
In North Carolina's Triangle area, the unemployment rate has dropped to 2.3 percent, and job listings are outnumbering the applicant pool.
Barbara Sherrick, the industry education coordinator at Sanderson High School in Raleigh, says she tries to match summer-jobs with students' interests.
"There's a variety of opportunities available," from landscaping to working for United Parcel Service, Ms. Sherrick said. "I encourage students to select part-time jobs that will give them opportunities for the future."
One Sanderson student, Annette Huetter, took this advice to heart. After "shadowing" soil scientists at North Carolina State University this spring, Ms. Huetter, 17, was offered a $7-an-hour summer job analyzing water samples at the university lab. She'll study chemistry when she enrolls at N.C. State this fall.
"I never would have thought about shadowing somebody in the field of soil science, but now I can see a lot of the technology involved," Ms. Huetter said.
The Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.'s chief economist, Jack Kyser, cites the city's summer-job prospects as the "best they've been since the late 1980s."
A number of sources are fueling the city's economic surge, including the tourism, manufacturing, and apparel industries.
"Most activities are reporting significant pickup, and companies are going to be more willing to have people come in this summer," Mr. Kyser said.
Summer-job programs for urban youths run by partnerships between governments, businesses, and schools also are providing opportunities for thousands of high school students.
As part of Chicago's "Summer of Opportunity," Foreman High School job coordinator Stephanie McEuen found jobs for 42 special education students at hospitals with the help of the city.
"I'm saying, 'I'll give you some free labor for six weeks. All I want is for you to give these kids the chance to interview'" afterwards, Ms. McEuen said.