Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Thanks to COVID-19, High Schoolers’ Job Prospects Are Bleak. Here’s How Schools Can Help

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 02, 2021 8 min read
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Economic downturns often take a steep toll on those just starting their careers. For students coming of age during and after the coronavirus pandemic, those financial and career-related “scars” could run particularly deep and hit vulnerable students the hardest.

While it’s hoped new vaccines will at last get the virus itself under control in the next several months, experts say it will take years for the global economy to recover. The disruption has accelerated existing trends (and their accompanying inequities) toward technology-based and automated jobs, experts say.

That is why they say schools will need to rethink how to support all kids—especially students of color, English-language learners, students with special needs, and kids from economically poor families—to become “college and career ready” over the next five years.

“We really do have a crisis here,” said Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “We never pay attention to youth where jobs are concerned. I mean, you can’t afford it; if the parents are out of work, you can’t start programs for the kids. … And now in this particular recession, we have a collapse in service [jobs], which is sort of the last chance for kids who’ve got to get more schooling and more work experience to be able to get a good job by the time they’re 32. So they are in trouble.”

The Class of 2020 graduated into a labor market with 18.5 percent unemployment for their age group—double the percentage for the same time the prior year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 1 in 4 Black and Asian-American and 1 in 5 Hispanic young adults were unemployed, compared with fewer than 1 in 5 of their white peers. Fewer young people worked this summer than any summer since the agency started tracking the data in 1948. Young people of color have struggled more to find work at the same time their families and communities have been disproportionately rocked by both COVID-19 itself and the broader economic fallout of the pandemic.

It is not a stretch to imagine a model of well-prepared, constantly learning generalists as a potential template for post-COVID-19 careers.

Starting their working lives during a recession can, in economists’ shorthand, “scar” students’ long-term careers. Studies have found those who graduate college into a deep recession—measured by at least 4 percentage points higher than average unemployment—had on average 10 percent lower earnings in their first year and 1.8 percent lower annual earnings over the next decade than the average for peers who did not graduate during a time of high unemployment.

Economic scarring was already considered particularly bad for those who came into the workforce during the Great Recession, but Congressional researchers have found young adults ages 16 to 24 have taken a bigger job hit during the pandemic than they did during the 2007-2009 downturn.

And while the Great Recession spurred a rise in college-going, so far postsecondary enrollment has fallen during the pandemic, as recent graduates contend with housing disruptions, financial instability, and fear of contagion.

Those who graduated with the Class of 2020 showed significantly lower rates than previous graduates of applying for financial aid and entering college, with many suggesting they were changing their plans for higher education to help support their families after parents’ illnesses or job losses.

In 2018, young people in families below the poverty line contributed 26 percent of their families’ overall income, compared with 9 percent for their peers in families at four times the poverty line or above, according to a Congressional report, which suggests the pandemic likely shifted an even greater financial burden onto the shoulders of low-income students.

“We now believe that this [pandemic] will result not only in scarring individuals, but scarring institutions: economic institutions, educational institutions, businesses. It’s going to take us a long time to restore them and give the economy its full power to generate jobs,” Carnevale said. “The scarring of individuals in institutions, if you follow the logic, should be going down all the way to K-12. We haven’t had this before.”

But keeping low-income students, in particular, on a path to higher degrees during a long recession is vital, according to Dirk Krueger, a professor of social sciences and of economics and finance at the University of Pennsylvania. He called for high schools to expand their college guidance for students around financial aid.

“My cynical, sad conclusion is if you are in the last years of high school and don’t plan to go to college, there’s not much you’ll be able to do in the labor market,” he said. "[Schools] have to tell kids, here’s how you deal with financing, … the value of your time has fallen in the labor market and you might as well spend that time in college, hit the labor market in four to five years.”

While much of the attention on pandemic-related learning loss has so far focused mostly on elementary students, Krueger said district leaders and state and federal policymakers also should prepare for secondary students to stay in school longer over the next several years. This means planning not just remedial programs or extended school years, but planning for extended grades, rather than waiting until students fail and having them repeat grades.

“I’m surprised this isn’t being more discussed,” Krueger said. “There has been a massive reduction in the amount of learning that has taken place. Some [students] may have had six months or more of lost schooling. It will not be crazy to let kids go to school an extra year to make up for this. The skills they need in the workplace are not just magically being reduced because of COVID. Those skills need to be made up.”

Work world moves online

So far, the pandemic has not so much changed the skills students need for future careers as created new contexts for students to use those skills.

In the November 2020 edition of an annual study of the most important competencies in more than 1,000 career fields, Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found the most sought-after skills for employers haven’t changed significantly—communication, teamwork, sales and customer service, leadership, and problem-solving and complex thinking still top the list now as they did before the pandemic. The big change is now they have shifted into new online contexts.

For example, more than three-quarters of employers across all fields listed communication and problem-solving skills as the most important for the work they do, but noted that what they mean by “communication” has changed as workers adjust to video conferences, online collaboration platforms, and other technology-based communication tools.

“The other side of the coin is really what the educators should be doing, which is trying to figure out who this person is and which occupation they fit. And you only know that if you help the person learn about what their interests are, what their work values are, what their personality traits are. And then you can try to tie them to occupations that look like that,” Carnevale said.

IT, health careers gain favor

In a nationally representative survey by the EdWeek Research Center in January, 39 percent of educators involved in high schools reported that they have started to encourage students more to seek professional jobs that would allow them to telecommute. More than 40 percent of those educators also said they have started to make a bigger effort to encourage students to pursue information technology jobs and nearly that percentage made more effort to recommend health-care careers to students.

Elizabeth McGinnis, a teacher in the medical pathway program at Lawrence County High School in Kentucky, was one of those educators talking up health care careers. “I see that there would be a lot more opportunity moving forward in research and community health,” she said. “I think that the pandemic has really brought to light the need for good skilled community health providers, your health departments, you know, your government agencies and the research and the data collection that goes into all of that. The pandemic has brought to light that we need to stay on top of things, that we need to keep moving forward with new vaccines for new strains of virus and stuff like that. So, I see a lot of opportunity in that area.”

As more industries move away from full-time salaried positions and toward part-time “gig”-style work, experts also suggested schools should play a role in teaching students how to stand up for themselves in the working world.

“I think it would be extremely valuable for schools to educate students about their legal rights in the workplace and how they can enforce them,” said Anna Stansbury, an economics researcher at Harvard University, who has been tracking labor issues before and during the pandemic.

“First, this should include education about the rights themselves: For example, what is the minimum wage and when does it apply? What are my rights in terms of protection of my health and safety in the workplace?” she said. “There is a lot of complexity in the details of the entitlements workers have, and often this means that they either do not know that they are entitled to benefits that they are not receiving, or they are not sure whether their employment qualifies or how to find out.”

The pandemic also highlighted the need for students to learn to become “hybrid workers,” according to Kimberly McDonald, professor and chair of organizational leadership and supervision at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, who has been studying work changes during the pandemic. She noted that health-care workers were called to “step outside their respective specialties to assist in fighting the virus, improvise in the moment, and respond to multiple needs with flexibility and speed.
“We saw a similar, if not as urgent, response when schools abruptly closed and educators on multiple levels were required to develop online lessons with little guidance or preparation time,” she said. “It is not a stretch to imagine a model of well-prepared, constantly learning generalists as a potential template for post-COVID-19 careers.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as Thanks to COVID-19, High Schoolers’ Job Prospects Are Bleak


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