Study: Only 27 percent of those who graduated from high school from 2006-11 have jobs

Evelyn De Jesus, a 2008 graduate of Mastbaum Vocational/Technical School, did a year at Pennsylvania State University but could not afford it and dropped out. Here, she holds her 2-year-old son. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel/Staff)
Evelyn De Jesus, a 2008 graduate of Mastbaum Vocational/Technical School, did a year at Pennsylvania State University but could not afford it and dropped out. Here, she holds her 2-year-old son. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel/Staff)
Posted: June 07, 2012

At a time of life normally suffused with hope and energy, 22-year-old Evelyn De Jesus has little to be optimistic about.

The 2008 graduate of Mastbaum Vocational/Technical School did a year at Pennsylvania State University but could not afford it and dropped out.

Once dreaming of becoming a lawyer, De Jesus - who lives in North Philadelphia with her unemployed boyfriend and 2-year-old son - now earns poverty wages of $10 an hour at a day-care center. She has $2,000 in college loans that she is struggling to pay back. "I always think about what it would have been like if I kept going," De Jesus said. "I always do."

De Jesus 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 University being released Wednesday.

Among the findings for recent high school graduates who are not enrolled in college full-time or do not have a college degree:

Just 27 percent have full-time jobs.

Almost one in three is unemployed.

Ninety percent are paid hourly, with the median hourly wage for full-time workers 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, coauthor 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 postsecondary degrees has remained dire.

"The market has been discriminating against those with high school degrees or less," said Temple University sociologist David Elesh, coprincipal investigator on the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project, which focuses on quality of life in the region.

For generations in the Philadelphia area, high school graduates without college degrees found sustaining work in manufacturing and construction, Elesh said. They could lead middle-class lives complete with a house, a car, and a yearly vacation on blue-collar salaries.

But manufacturing has long been diminished, and the recession "torpedoed" construction, Elesh said.

High school-only graduates also feel the effects of mal-employment, he said. This happens when college graduates take high school labor-market jobs because their own opportunities are limited. Only half of recent college graduates are in jobs that require a college education, a previous Heldrich study showed.

The result is that high school graduates get pushed further down into the mud at the bottom of the employment ladder, finding themselves in jobs with meager pay - or unemployed.

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 Marianna Bracetti Academy Charter School in Kensington.

After high school, Santiago, who lives in Kensington, 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 store, then started thinking he could study computer technology.

"Now, I know that a college degree means better pay," 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 said they had been at their current job less than a year, and seven in 10 said it had 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 postsecondary education for what they wanted to do in life.

Throughout America, 30 percent of all people who graduate from 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.

For so many who are part of a marooned generation who cannot seem to get ahead, life remains hard.

"We don't have enough to stay out of poverty," said De Jesus, who spoke as children at her day-care job clamored around her.

"We go to church, and we pray, hopefully, this all gets better."


For Information

To read more on this study and others by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, go to http://www.heldrich.rutgers.edu

To read The Inquirer's continuing series on how young adults are bearing the brunt of the Great Recession and changes in the American economy, "Struggling for Work: The Broken Dreams of a New Generation," go to http://www.philly.com/

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Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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