Economy
5:02 pm
Wed June 6, 2012

Young Adults Without Degrees Struggle To Find Work

Originally published on Mon June 11, 2012 4:41 pm

The job market is still bleak for young people with only high school diplomas. Nearly half of high school graduates are still looking for full-time work, according to a new report by Rutgers University's John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.

The national survey interviewed 544 recent high school grads from 2006 to 2011 who are not in college. Researchers say their hardship may have long-term emotional and financial consequences.

Lowering Expectations

Valerie Peterson, 23, lowered her expectations a long time ago. Unable to afford college and trying to find work with just a high school diploma during the recession in Columbus, Ohio, she had no choice.

But she still has trouble getting her head around the reality of working the overnight shift at a gas station, earning an extra 50 cents over minimum wage — better than some of her old jobs at RadioShack and Wendy's, but still a long stretch from her dream to start and run a business.

"When I was 18, my dreams were what I want to become and what I want to do," Peterson says. "And now the only thing I'm looking for is to get by."

'Eking Out A Living'

The picture is equally dismal for millions of recent high school graduates, says Rutgers University professor Cliff Zukin, who co-directed the national survey.

The study found most still live with family, and only 1 in 4 have full-time jobs. Of those surveyed who graduated before the recession between 2006 and 2008, 37 percent are employed full-time. Only 16 percent of those who graduated between 2009 and 2011, the worst years of the recession, work full-time.

Zukin says it's not surprising that less than half believe they will ever achieve the American dream of doing better than their parents.

"This is a huge swath of American youth that have no economic prospects right now for doing anything better than marginally eeking out a living," Zukin says.

'Something's Got To Give'

Like most others surveyed, Neetasha Thomson, 24, of Memphis, knows she needs to go to college to get ahead, but she can't afford it.

She managed to go for just one year. Five years later, she now works 50-plus hours each week at Wal-Mart and FedEx to pay down that debt. Thompson applied for aid last year to go back to college again, but she found it still too expensive. But she is saving and planning to try again.

"This is not what I want to be. This is not the life I want," Thompson says. "I mean, point blank, I don't want to be just wasting my life, working these two jobs. Something's got to give. Something's got to change."

But Thompson, like the majority of those surveyed, believes it will take many years before she is financially stable enough to think about the big life milestones, like buying a home or starting a family.

Over the long term, Zukin says, this generation will likely be "permanently depressed," emotionally and economically. These recent high school graduates may never earn as much money as "people who came before them or people who came after them," he predicts.

Zukin was also struck by the number of young people who said the most important thing they were looking for in a job was job security. At 24 years old, he says, you don't say that unless you've been scarred.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If you're a recent high school graduate or have one still living with you, it should come as no surprise that the job market is pretty bleak for young people. A new survey shows that nearly half of those who graduated from high school between 2006 and 2011, but are not enrolled in college, are still looking for full-time work.

And as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, their hardship may have long-term emotional and financial consequences.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Twenty-three-year-old Valerie Peterson already went through lowering her expectations a long time ago. Unable to afford college; and trying to find work with just a high school diploma, in Columbus, Ohio, during the recession, she had to. But still, she has trouble getting her head around her reality now, working the overnight shift at a gas station.

VALERIE PETERSON: I would never have seen myself doing something like this.

SMITH: The overnight shift pays an extra 50 cents over minimum wage - better than some of her old jobs at Radio Shack and Wendy's, but still a long stretch from her dream of starting her own business.

PETERSON: When I was 18, my dreams were what I want to become, and what I want to do. And now, they're just like - the only thing that I'm looking for is to get by.

CLIFF ZUKIN: It's just overwhelmingly sad.

SMITH: Rutgers University professor Cliff Zukin says the picture is equally dismal for millions of recent high school grads. He co-directed the survey of more than 500 grads who are not in college, and found most still live with family. Only one in four have full-time jobs. And it's even worse - just one in six - for those who graduated in the worst years.

Little wonder, Zukin says, less than half believe they'll ever achieve the American dream of doing better than their parents.

ZUKIN: I mean, this is a huge swath of American youth that have no economic prospects right now for doing anything better than marginally eeking out a living.

NEETASHA THOMSON: It makes you feel like a failure.

SMITH: Like most others surveyed, 24-year-old Neetasha Thomson, from Memphis, says she knows she needs to go to college to get ahead. But she can't afford it. She managed to go for just one year. And five years later, working two jobs, she's still paying down that debt.

Last year, Thomson applied for aid to go back again, but found it still too expensive.

THOMSON: I still needed 10,000, and I would have had to let out two additional loans. And I was like, oh my God, more school loans!

SMITH: Thomson is saving, and planning to try yet again after one more year of working 50-plus hours at Wal-Mart and FedEx.

THOMSON: I don't want to be just wasting my life, working these two jobs. I'm like, something's got to give. Something's got to change.

SMITH: But Thomson, like the majority of those surveyed, believe it will still take many years - at least - before she's financially stable enough to think about the big life milestones like buying a home or starting a family.

THOMSON: Well, yeah, I'm 24 now. I don't want to be 30 having kids, you know? But I want to be able to afford a child. Like, right now, I have a dog.

SMITH: Over the long term, Rutgers researcher Cliff Zukin says this generation will continue to suffer emotionally and economically.

ZUKIN: That group's probably going to be permanently depressed. They may never make as much money as they would have - of people that came before them, or people who came after them.

SMITH: Zukin says he was really struck by the number of young people saying the most important thing they were looking for in a job was job security. At 24 years old, he says, you don't say that unless you've been scarred.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.