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Tight Job Scene Means Applicants Need More Than K-12 Education

By Hattie Brown — May 28, 2003 5 min read
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Without internships, specialized training, or other types of practical experience, graduating high school students who want to go straight into the workforce may have a tough time finding jobs this year, employment experts say.

High-tech and manufacturing companies, in particular, once had plenty of open jobs for graduating seniors. Such employers are now less likely to hire inexperienced graduates.

“Someone coming right out of high school is going to have the hardest time finding a job out of everyone in the labor market,” said economist Schuyler Porche of the Washington-based Employment Policy Foundation, a nonprofit research and educational organization.

“What students coming out of high school need to do is ... face the reality: They need to get skills,” he said. “If you have specialized skills, there is work for you.”

In a tight economy, lesser-skilled workers have to compete with more experienced adults who remain unemployed and still in the job pool. Also, many employers are just not hiring, and those people with jobs are staying put.

“New entrants are only one small part of the total number of people out there looking for jobs,” said William Dickens, a senior fellow in economics and government studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “Competition [among the unemployed] becomes problematic during a time like this.”

Since November 2001, the national unemployment rate has hovered between 5.6 percent and 6 percent, signaling a consistent number of people looking for jobs in the past year and a half. That rate—at 6 percent in April—has hit its highest point since December, but was about the same last April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Though the unemployment rate may seem high by recent, boom-years standards, that figure was about 10 percent in the early 1980s, said Jon Sargent, an economist for the bureau’s office of occupational statistics and employment projections.

“The present 6 percent isn’t really that bad at all,” he said, “but that doesn’t help someone who’s unemployed. There’s just not a lot of job openings right now.”

Degree or Training

About 2.9 million students are expected to graduate from public and private high schools this year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2001, about 30 percent of the high school graduating class went straight to the workforce, not including those joining the military, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest research shows. In April of that year, the unemployment rate still hovered around 4.5 percent, and the economy was just beginning its persistent funk, meaning new high school graduates may have been more optimistic about their job opportunities.

But optimism is not a word anyone is throwing around this spring about the job market.

In today’s economy, it’s increasingly the case that people with education beyond a high school diploma have a lower unemployment rate overall and make higher wages, said Michael Chittenden, a spokesman for the Employment Policy Foundation.

“Right now, a college degree is more important than it ever has been,” he said.

Sue Carlson, a career-development counselor at the 1,600-student Wichita High School South in Wichita, Kan., has been trying to emphasize that very idea to students.

“Their chances of employment right out of high school are not good,” she said. “We really stress to them if they don’t continue their education, that it diminishes their pay.”

Even those students who don’t want to go to a four-year college should consider attending a trade school or community college, Ms. Carlson said.

“There’s not a lot we can turn them to if they’re not willing to be trained,” she said.

One of the critical tools in finding a job is knowing where the opportunities are, said Renee Ward, the founder and executive director of Teens4Hire.org, a national job Web site for teenagers. Health services, for example, is one field with many openings for graduating high school students, she said.

Ms. Ward’s main advice for graduating high school students looking for a job: network, network, network.

“They have to hit the streets because they’re not going to see advertisements out all over the place,” Ms. Ward said. “Jobs will not fall on anybody’s lap.”

High Tech Fizzles

Students who left high school during the high-tech-driven boom of the 1990s were often greeted with high-paying jobs right after graduation. But the class of 2003 faces a weakened economy that has narrowed the market for those more desirable high- tech and manufacturing jobs.

In the past two years, the manufacturing sector has shrunk by more than 2 million jobs, making companies more particular about the people they hire, said Phyllis Eisen, the vice president of the Manufacturing Institute, based in Washington, and the executive director of the Center for Workforce Success, an arm of the institute.

New high school graduates often lack basic job prerequisites, such as strong reading, writing, and critical-thinking skills, she said.

Anne Griffith, a research director with the Software and Information Industry Association, also in Washington, said that unless a graduating student is “a really hot programmer,” he or she will likely only be able to get a sales or database- management job in a high-tech company without a degree.

“There are certainly a lot more people out competing for relatively low-end jobs,” Ms. Griffith said. "[Bachelor’s degrees] are really seen as a necessity.”

During the flush years for technology companies, such employers would do anything they could to get workers, including hiring them straight out of high school, said Mr. Porche, the Employment Policy Foundation economist. Now that more skilled workers are back in the job market, and fewer spots in the manufacturing and high-tech fields are open, high schoolers are the ones who seem to be losing out.

A new program in Philadelphia attempts to reinforce basic job skills in students and find them jobs in the manufacturing and technology sectors. A select group of teenagers at four high schools has been given paid, three-year apprenticeships at Lockheed Martin Management and Data Systems, in King of Prussia, Pa. If successful, the students will be hired permanently.

The students work at the company’s offices one day a week as high school juniors, and two days a week as seniors. During summers, and for a year after they graduate, they work full time.

The program, which now has 38 students, targets teenagers from low-income families who are interested in information technology and most likely would not go on to postsecondary education, said Melissa Orner, the vice president of the Philadelphia Youth Network, the intermediary organization that set up the apprenticeships.

“The Lockheed Martin students are far more advanced than the regular high school students. We’ve received the knowledge they haven’t yet,” said Michael Williams, an 18-year-old senior at Jules E. Mastbaum Area Vocational Technical School. “In the business world, we know how to conduct ourselves.”


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