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More Young Americans Out of High School Are Also Out of Work

For this generation of young people, the future looks bleak. Only one in six is working full time. Three out of five live with their parents or other relatives. A large majority — 73 percent — think they need more education to find a successful career, but only half of those say they will definitely enroll in the next few years.

Winston Davidian | Photodisc | Getty Images

No, they are not the idle youth of Greece or Spain or Egypt. They are the youth of America, the world’s richest country, who do not have college degrees and aren’t getting them anytime soon.

Whatever the sob stories about recent college graduates spinning their wheels as baristas or clerks, the situation for their less-educated peers is far worse, according to a report from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University scheduled to be released on Wednesday. The data comes from a national survey of high school graduates who are not enrolled in college full time, a notoriously transient population that social scientists and other experts had been having trouble tracking. (In the two months since the survey was conducted, a large share of participants have had their phone numbers disconnected and could not be reached.)

For this group, finding work that pays a living wage and offers some sense of security has been elusive.

“I want more money, and I really don’t like what I do,” said Walter Walden, 24, of Wenatchee, Wash., one of the lucky members of this group who has a full-time job, in this case, at a restaurant. “I had to go back to school.” He now lives with his mother so he can take nursing classes part time.

Workers just a few years younger than Mr. Walden have been thrust into a daunting combination of a temporarily feeble economy and the longer-term elimination of traditional middle-class jobs.

Americans who graduated from high school just before layoffs started to swell — in this report, defined as 2006-8 — were having trouble making ends meet. Just 37 percent employed were full time and another 23 percent were working part time, usually because they could not find full-time work.

But among those who graduated after the financial crisis, the numbers are far worse: only 16 percent of the classes of 2009-11 had full-time jobs. An additional 22 percent were working part time, and most of them wanted full-time work.

Despite the continuing national conversation about whether college is worth it given the debt burden it entails, most high school graduates without college degrees said they believed they would be unable to get good jobs without more education.

“If I ever want to get out of retail,” said Bethany McClour, 21, a part-time worker at The Children’s Place clothing store in Medford, Ore., “more education is definitely important.”

Getting it is challenging, though, and not only because of formidable debt levels.

Ms. McClour and her husband, Andy, have two daughters under 3 and another due next month. She said she tried enrolling in college classes, but the workload became too stressful with such young children. Mr. McClour works at a gas station. He hates his work and wants to study phlebotomy, but the nearest school is an hour and a half away.

“My mother is my day care,” Ms. McClour said. “We can’t move that far away.”

Others surveyed said college was out of reach because of the cost or family responsibilities.

Many of these young people had been expecting to go to college since they started high school, perhaps anticipating that employers would demand skills high schools do not teach. Just one in 10 high school graduates without college degrees said they were “extremely well prepared by their high school to succeed in their job after graduation.”

These young people worried about getting left behind and were pessimistic about reaching some of the milestones that make up the American dream.

More than half — 56 percent — of high school graduates without college diplomas said that their generation would have less financial success than their parents. By contrast, just 14 percent said they expected to do better than their parents. (Another study from the Heldrich Center found that recent college graduates were similarly pessimistic about whether their generation would surpass that of their parents.)

Many young people were just struggling to keep up with their parents.

When he graduated from high school last year, Harley Sproud, 18, started working for the same construction company that employed his father. A few months later, when the company ran into financial trouble, he was let go.

“Thank God I had a buddy at Burger King who could help me out,” said Mr. Sproud, of Advance, N.C.

The frying-and-cleanup job did not exactly make full use of the skills he learned last fall in a nine-week culinary class, but it was the best opportunity he could find. He is now recovering from a car accident — which required him to move back in with his parents, both for financial and medical reasons — and is hoping to return to Burger King next month.

Like Mr. Sproud, many graduates are finding it difficult to track into their desired lines of work. Among the group of high school graduates surveyed by the Heldrich Center, just over half (56 percent) said they believed they would find a “job that leads to a career” within the “next few years.”

About the same share believed they would find work that offered health insurance within that time frame. Slightly less than half of respondents said the next few years would bring work with good job security or a job with earnings that were high “enough to lead a comfortable life.” They were similarly pessimistic about being able to start a family or buy a home.

The survey was conducted between March 21 and April 2, and covered a nationally representative survey of 544 high school graduates from the classes of 2006-11 who did not have bachelor’s degrees. The margin of error was 4.5 percentage points.

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