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Jobs for Those Who Lack College Degrees

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As I have stated many times here, the United States has to create dignified work for people who can’t or haven’t earned a college degree. It’s simply terrible policy to blithely claim that education will solve our problems because it completely ignores the fact that some people are simply not cut out for a college education. And that needs to be OK. Those people need jobs too. It used to be that you could not have a college degree and get a factory job that wouldn’t be too exciting but would pay you decently and had a good chance of being around a long time. But now we have committed to moving factories overseas and automating what is left in the U.S. This has created huge corporate profits but has left a whole generation of non-college educated young people without hope for the future.

The outlook for many high school graduates is more challenging, as Vynny Brown can attest. Now 20, he graduated two years ago from Waller High School in Texas, and has been working for nearly a year at Pappasito’s Cantina in Houston, part of a chain of Tex-Mex restaurants. He earns $7.25 an hour filling takeout orders or $2.13 an hour plus tips as a server, which rarely adds up to more than the minimum, he said. He would like to apply to be a manager, but those jobs require some college experience.

“That is something I don’t have,” said Mr. Brown, who says he cannot afford to go to college now. “It’s the biggest struggle I’ve had.”

Most young workers have the same problem as Mr. Brown. Only 10 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds have a college or advanced degree, according to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute, although many more of them will eventually graduate.

And for young high school graduates, the unemployment rate is disturbingly high: 17.8 percent. Add in those who are underemployed, either because they would like a full-time job but can only find part-time work, or they are so discouraged that they’ve given up actively searching, and the share jumps to more than 33 percent.

Younger workers have always had a tougher time finding a job than their older, more experienced counterparts. Even so, the economic recovery has progressed more slowly for young high school graduates than for those coming out of college.

“It’s improved since the recession, but it’s still pretty poor,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, who noted the average hourly wage for high school graduates had declined since 2000 despite increases in the minimum wage in some places.

Ms. Gould is part of a growing chorus of economists, employers and educators who argue more effort needs to be put into improving job prospects for people without college degrees.

“Without question we have failed to pay attention to and invest in opportunities for young people who are not on a path to go to four years of college,” said Chauncy Lennon, the head of work force initiatives at JPMorgan Chase, which has started a $75 million program to design and deliver career-focused education in high schools and community colleges.

The elephant in the room in all these discussions is the end of manufacturing jobs. Policymakers, including the current president, simply have not devoted any meaningful resources to even think through these issues while at the same time intensely pressing for free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership to send even more American jobs overseas. One could theoretically have those free trade agreements and then robust economic programs for the working class, but of course that is not going to happen. These agreements send profits to the wealthy and leave the working class behind with nothing more than lessons to pull themselves up by their boostraps and go to college for programs which they may not be suited for and for which they take out tens of thousands of dollars in debt. This is not a series of policies that lead to long-term social and political stability.

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