Diminished Diplomas

Brian Haney , 31, of the Northeast, with only a high school degree, cannot find a well-paying job. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Brian Haney , 31, of the Northeast, with only a high school degree, cannot find a well-paying job. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The job market is bleak even for millennials with college degrees. For those without, it's a different world.

Posted: December 31, 2012

Facing the future with a college degree is like being in a lifeboat on a roiling sea.

Facing the future with a high school degree is like being in the water.

If you're a member of the millennial generation - ages 18 to 34 - who never got beyond 12th grade, expect hard times, say people who study the transition from youth to adulthood.

"There's nothing for these kids," said Maria Kefalas, a St. Joseph's University sociologist. "Absolutely nothing."

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, put it this way: "It's remarkable how much trouble they're in."

It's not simply the recession and its robust half-life that stymie high-school-only young people.

Thirty years of jobs moving from Main Street to Mumbai and elsewhere; of the American workplace being wired with robots and computers that perform the jobs that factory workers and office clerks once did; of neutered unions, shrunken wages, and diminished benefits - all of this has changed the nature of work and has made people who use their hands, backs, and working-class smarts nearly as obsolete as VCRs.

"I don't see a future or an ability to retire," said Brian Haney, 31, an unemployed Northeast Philadelphia resident with only a high school degree. "There'll be one low-wage job after another ahead of me. It's just a nightmare."

The national unemployment rate for people ages 18 to 19 with only high school degrees is 22.7 percent, according to new, non-seasonally adjusted calculations by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; for people 20 to 24, it's 16.4 percent; for those 25 to 34, 10.4 percent. Throughout the United States, overall unemployment is currently 7.7 percent.

In Philadelphia, some 23 percent of people with only high school diplomas ages 18 to 34 were without work between 2007 and 2011, the highest rate in the region. That's compared with 4.8 percent unemployment among similar-aged Philadelphians with bachelor's degrees, according to census data analyzed for The Inquirer by economist Paul Harrington, director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University.

Although the economy is improving, high-school-only graduates still find themselves pressured on all sides. They compete with immigrants for unskilled construction work. They're aced out of traditional service jobs by young people with college degrees who can't find work on their own level. And they're applying for the same underpaying jobs at the mall that their friends are, all of them members of a star-crossed generation that's huge in number but short on options.

Of course, high school graduates understand that a postsecondary education - a certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor's - is the best way up and out. But scholarly rigor isn't for everyone. And postsecondary prices are out of reach for many blue-collar people.

A generation ago, that would have been fine; there was plenty of decent-paying blue-collar work.

But that America is gone.

What exists now is a country that can no longer be called the land of opportunity for all.

"These kids are part of a generation that was still being told they can do anything," Kefalas said. "Well, no, you can't. There are huge barriers now.

"Kids in Kensington say they're going to be lawyers, veterinarians. It makes me crazy, because it'll never happen."

The new America has a new culture. Young men who can't find work can't afford to get married. More couples are living together, often in the homes of the woman's parents, pooling modest resources and having babies out of wedlock.

The inability of high school graduates to thrive has consequences for the entire nation. Underpaid people can't contribute significantly to the Social Security system and won't help expand the tax base.

For those whose job is to understand work and workers, few facts are more dismaying than this:

Of all the jobs available today to people with high school degrees only, just three of 10 promise a family-sustaining wage, calculated as $35,000 or above, according to Jeff Strohl, an economist and colleague of Carnevale's.

"The high school economy is dead or dying," Strohl said.

And that exerts a price, Kefalas intoned: "Kids are depressed over the uncertainties. It's one thing to be old and to have life disappointments. It's another to have a midlife crisis at 23 because the world let you down."

The musicians

Betsy Sappington strummed her guitar in the small basement of her parents' home in Prospect Park, Delaware County.

She's writing a Taylor Swiftian song about love and pain: I should have watched out for myself. As the song suggests, things have not been easy for the 21-year-old graduate of Interboro High School.

Sappington works for $10 an hour at the nonprofit Community Action Agency of Delaware County. The job, which helps low-income people get their homes weatherized, is guaranteed until next fall. After that, who knows?

She got the job through her father, who worked for the agency as an installer for 22 years but who was forced to retire in 2008 after a stroke. Sappington's mother, who was laid off from an airport-parking company in 2006, suffered a heart attack three years ago.

Both parents are now disabled, and Sappington must cook each night for the household, which also includes her grandmother and two siblings.

This isn't the life she imagined. She'd gone to Delaware County Community College part time for 11/2 years to study business management, but lack of money forced her to quit.

"She belongs in college," said Linda Freeman, a family friend, referencing Sappington's A average and inclusion on her school's honor roll. "She would have been the first person in her family to attain college. Now it's just gone."

Sappington may have to resign herself to a blue-collar life. But where will she work when she's 22?

"These days, people with college degrees do the filing in offices," said Sappington, an easy-smiling young woman who scowls when she recalls scrambling in the labor market. She applied for a receptionist's job but was turned away because the firm wanted someone with a college-level accounting degree.

"But the job had no accounting," Sappington said. "It blows me away."

Her friends search for work constantly. One who posted on Facebook about a cashier's job at an apparel store was flooded with questions about it.

"It is insane there are so many people desperate for work," Sappington said. At one point before the agency job, Sappington had applied to McDonald's, Wal-Mart, a CVS pharmacy, and an Acme market. All had turned her down or not responded.

"I'm a smart kid and a hard worker, and I couldn't even get a job at McDonald's," Sappington said, deflated. "I couldn't get a holiday season job at Wal-Mart. Can you believe that? That's how many are out there looking."

She laments the loss of the days when people applied for jobs in person, not via computer, and could win work by demonstrating pluck and brains.

"You can't go in and use your personality to get a job anymore," she said.

Outside her office in a yellow building on the Delaware River in Essington one lunch hour, Sappington walked the riverbank.

At low tide, the river bottom is visible, a rank, muddy mess. Above, jets from nearby Philadelphia International Airport took off in rapid succession to places Sappington imagines are finer, fancier.

On the ground, amid the muck and meager chances, Sappington considered 44 more working years of nothing special.

"My folks seem to think I'll be fine," she said. "But I can't understand why I'm in this situation."

Khalib Artis is at his computer, listening to the Kendrick Lamar song "good kid, m.A.A.d city" in the dining room of the West Philadelphia house where he lives with his mother:

Fresh outta school cause I was a high school grad

Sleeping in the living room in my momma's pad

Artis, 21, has his own room, but the rest of the lyric resonates. Six-foot-three, gentle and handsome, Artis is drawn to the music life. He writes hip-hop songs himself, not to perform, but he hopes for others to make famous.

A graduate of World Communications Charter School in Philadelphia, Artis applied for 43 jobs between January and May alone. Among many low-wage jobs he's worked, Artis has parked cars at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts and cleaned the toilets at Christ Lutheran Church in Upper Darby, where his uncle used to be the pastor.

Lately, he's been working part time at Perfumania at the King of Prussia mall - two buses and a train away. But that's seasonal and will soon end.

Artis attended Community College of Philadelphia for more than a year but didn't finish. "I wasn't focused in class," he said in a low, measured voice. "I love music, and all I could do was think of music. College is not for everybody, and 100 percent of the population shouldn't have to be subjected to that one lane."

He hears his mother, a laid-off paralegal who now does office duties for a Center City lawyer, talk about the jobs that people without degrees could choose in the 1970s - tales of the low-hanging fruit of a better time. "It was much different being 21 back then," Artis said.

Artis lately has been working on a project he calls "Undeferred." It's based on an image he created of an angel chasing its halo. Artis sees this as the logo for a music label, or a movement for young people. He wears an angel on a hoodie he designed.

The angel represents people who do bad but strive to be good. In their efforts, they manage not to defer their dreams, but to live them.

"The most successful people are the ones who use their ideas to the max," Artis said, hoping from his predicament in the tight West Philly streets that he could be one of them. He's not optimistic in one of his songs:

From a city full of talent but the voices go unheard

So the city's full of nightmares, too many dreams deferred.

The problem with men

Sometimes, they're called good old days for a reason.

In 1980, men 25 to 34 with only a high school education made around $41,000 in median annual earnings (in 2010 dollars); in 2010, it was closer to $31,000, according to research by Demos, a New York think tank.

For women, it was $27,000 annually in 1980 vs. $24,000 in 2010.

There was less of a drop for women because, in many cases, women are better at finding work than men these days (although women still get paid less overall). In fact, the Great Recession was dubbed the "Man-Cession" because blue-collar men lost an estimated 50 percent greater number of jobs than women, especially in manufacturing and construction, experts say. Women tended to be in more recession-resistant jobs such as health care and education, Ohio State University economist Randall Olsen said.

In service jobs especially, employers are more comfortable with women than men, said Harry Holzer, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor under President Bill Clinton.

Often, young men are undesirable because of their dress, bravado, or poor language skills, said Waldo Johnson, a social-work professor at the University of Chicago and expert on African American males. "Many young men in our communities don't understand that you speak to a prospective employer differently than to your peers," Johnson said.

Further complicating the situation is crime.

Nationwide in 2009, one in nine black males 25 to 29 was in prison or jail; for Latinos, it was one in 27; and for whites, one in 60, according to Demos.

It's axiomatic that people with criminal records have a hard time finding work. Nationwide, 6.5 percent of juveniles have arrest records, but the rate is three times that in Philadelphia, according to an Army study.

Philadelphia is known for its thriving drug trade, a "siren call" for young people ill-equipped by the school system to do much else, said anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, a University of Pennsylvania expert on drug dealers.

"I made around $100,000 selling Percocets in Kensington for nine months before I was arrested," said Ed Barr, 27 and jobless in Port Richmond. Barr's mother died when he was 11, two years before his father killed himself. By 16, Barr was on his own. At 19, he went to prison for four years for drug dealing.

Now, Barr lives with his girlfriend, 21, a clerk, and her father. He's unable to find construction work, his record a waving red flag.

"I live off my girlfriend," Barr said. "It's embarrassing - to live off other people and not be the man of the relationship."

Such arrangements are becoming common, experts say, particularly in white neighborhoods like Port Richmond, as disenfranchised young people who foresee few opportunities decide to live together to pool resources. In 1982, 3 percent of women ages 15 to 44 were cohabiting with men; these days, it's more than 10 percent, said Bill Mosher, statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics.

Fifty percent of cohabiting women get pregnant on purpose, said Mosher, quoting a national survey. Many of the fathers are high-school-only men. Such women believe there's no point in postponing childbirth until after marriage because they don't believe their men are marriage material to begin with, experts say.

Men are still expected to be breadwinners, but they'll fail at it every time if all they can wrangle are low-paying jobs, said Holzer, the labor economist.

Births to cohabiting women rose from 14 percent of all U.S. births in 2000 to 23 percent today - about one million babies each year, Mosher said.

Often, Mosher and others say, these relationships are unstable, and people move on to other live-in arrangements.

Lack of work, then, changes the definition of what it means to be a family in America.

"This is a society based on work," Carnevale, of Georgetown, said. "If there isn't work, social structure crumbles. No other social system guarantees family stability other than a job."

That rare union card

During the weekend, off-duty truckers park their rigs along the empty curbs outside big-box stores near Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

Early Mondays, the streets shake as road warriors mount up and move out for the week.

Kevin Costello hates the routine, hates being away from his fiancée from Monday through Friday. "I detest trucking," he said.

But he makes around $17 an hour hauling freight like the paper towels he drove to Scranton the other day. So he lives in a truck with bunk beds in the cab during the week, and on weekends with his fiancée and her mother in the Northeast.

Costello, 23, got a GED after dropping out from Community Academy Charter school in Hunting Park. He'll start Central Pennsylvania University online next month, and take college courses in the truck. He'd like to become a police officer.

"I'm depressed," Costello said. "I can't be what I wanted at this stage in life."

Raised by his grandmother after his mother left home and his father developed health problems, Costello was directionless for a while.

He worked construction jobs under the table, and was about to become assistant manager at a coat store when a new hire with a B.A. in sociology got the job.

"Sociology has nothing to do with loading freight and organizing the back room of a store," Costello said, still angry. "I honestly think the sociologist got hired because people put college on a much higher pedestal. They absolutely discriminate against high-school-degree people."

It's true, said Sherry Linkon, until recently codirector of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University. "We associate college with better traits in people," she said. "College has been defined as the norm within the last 10 years. Questions are raised about those who don't attend, and a stigma develops."

Costello can't believe how hard his life is compared with the other men in his family. His grandfather was a boilermaker who handed down his union card to Costello's father.

But these days, union cards aren't automatically conferred. And boilermakers now need technical school training for welding, which turned out to cost many thousands more than trucking school, Costello said.

"The American dream is skewed," he added. "It used to be you didn't need college, could still have a job, own a house, send your kids to Catholic school, and have a good life. No more.

"I absolutely believe we're the worst-off generation."

Out of aces

Brian Haney puts the king of spades through his paces in a card trick he performs for visitors in his run-down Northeast apartment filled with Star Wars paraphernalia.

Haney can conjure up the king whenever he wants. Finding a well-paying job, however, is beyond the young man's magic.

"The economy is healing but we're not feeling it yet," said Haney, who graduated from Northeast High School in 2001.

Since then, he's worked in magic shops, pumped gas, and been a salesman, but he hasn't gotten his life going.

A self-professed geek and tireless video gamer, the unemployed Haney has $6 in the bank and is $2,000 behind on his rent to his landlord, a former boss of his who hasn't the heart to evict him.

"My parents help me out with money," Haney said. "I feel guilty."

Haney, currently on food stamps, said he never had the money for community college but recognizes the power of a degree.

"Employers use college as a weeding-out device," he said. "It doesn't matter what the degree is in."

And, he added, without a diploma, "good luck meeting women."

There's a way teachers and principals talk to you in high school that pumps you up and sends you into the world thinking you'll get somewhere, Haney said, adding, "The message at graduation is, you can be anything. It inspires hope. But in the end, that's all you've got. Where are the good jobs?"

A race thing?

Jesus Diaz sat in a friend's apartment in a ragged housing project in Camden, wondering how his life will turn out.

The son of a preacher, Diaz, 22, said he grew up fearing God, but he's more worried about the attitudes of employers.

"I think it's a race thing," said Diaz, 22, a Woodrow Wilson High School dropout. Employers "don't trust Hispanic men or black men and won't hire them."

"But a lot of females are getting jobs. Bosses think men are dangerous, or don't take jobs seriously."

Diaz believes he's not getting the opportunity to sell clothes in mall stores because he's Latino. "They want a specific look for workers," he said. "The reality is they're more into Caucasians."

Diaz, whose family moved to the Pocono Mountains a few years back, joined them and worked for a while in a grocery near their home. But the job didn't last and he returned to Camden to live with his grandmother and to earn his GED, which he's scheduled to get next month.

Grateful to his family - "They were always there for me," Diaz said - he believes it's time to stand up on his own.

"I can't depend on them all my life," he said. He hopes to find work as a medical assistant but he knows he needs to get training.

Asked whom he holds responsible for his lot, Diaz said, "It's 50-50. You can put the blame on the world and on yourself. Everything is crumbling, but I believe there's a way to make it. It won't come fast, though."

Youthful optimism

Mark Heffner was sitting among a blue sea of cops eating breakfast in a Juniata Park diner, the epitome of a working-class joint.

Heffner, 18, is the son of a forklift operator and a Philadelphia Parking Authority meter attendant. "My mom ruins everyone's day," Heffner jokes.

Having graduated from Franklintown Charter High School last summer, Heffner is starting his adult life in a tough place at an unsteady time.

"I wanted to go to college to become a personal trainer," said Heffner, a gym rat who, without a job, will often work out at 3 a.m. "But I fear debt. A lot of buddies drop out of college without degrees but with debt, and are so much in the hole."

Practical teachers told him not to shoot for leafy campuses; just find a job with benefits and you'll be all right, they instructed.

So far, the muscular Heffner, who needs his brown beard to help him look old enough to vote, hasn't been able to latch on to anything, though he's scoured the Internet and reached out to friends.

"I have a lot to show the world," Heffner said, "but I can't get it out there."

In his family, work is practically a religion, and Heffner uses sacred words to describe his parents as blue-collar "saints" whom he feels "blessed" to have because of their early-riser enthusiasm.

"If I could be anybody, I'd be my dad, because that dude works," Heffner said. "If you provide for the family, that's one of the greatest things to do. I respect him for that."

As hard as life is, Heffner has a young man's belief it will all turn out well.

"I'm super-optimistic," he said, finishing off an egg sandwich in anticipation of some weightlifting. "I'm a good kid and I can impress a supervisor. I'm not going to falter, get drunk, act like a kid.

"Listen, I'm still young. I know it's going to happen for me. Someday."


ONLINE

Betsy Sappington and Khalib Artis on their struggle to find jobs: www.philly.com/phljobs


COMING MONDAY

Alternatives to an academic track for all students are being tried, but slowly.


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

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