This weekend was the peak of the college graduation season. Colleges invite well-known people to travel all over America to give a 15 minute commencement address in exchange for an honorary doctorate. It is intellectually dishonest but, as it is graduation day, the hypocrisy is ignored.
A much smaller number of the college graduates this year will find jobs. That fact has been over examined in the press along with the fact that the long recession means that those graduates who do find jobs will get them at relatively low wages. Furthermore, those wages will stay low for the next several years while the economy recovers.
What has not received much press is the fate of the young people who are in the 2009 graduating class at U.S. high schools, especially those students who will not go on to college. Unemployment among college graduates is still below 5%. Unemployment among people who have only graduated from high school and have no additional training is over 10%. People who did not graduate from high school at all have greater than a 15% chance to be among the jobless.
Another group that expected to graduate this year was the people who assumed that 2009 would be the first year of their retirement. Many of them have seen their savings savaged by the falling stock market. Others had hoped the value of their homes could be converted into cash. The value of those homes is down 30%. People who thought they would be able to stop working this year may need to work for another five to ten years. Very few employers, with the exception of retail outlets like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s , want to hire older workers, even if they are well-educated, in spite of the federal laws against discrimination. Older workers tend, not surprisingly, to have more health problems and will often be unhappy working for the same wage that a high school graduate would receive.
There is an increasing recognition that younger and older people need jobs and are often competing in the same job market, as the population of unemployed people grows.
One of the interesting things about the Administration’s stimulus programs is that they are focused on sectors and industries and not focused as clearly on the people who are unemployed. Building broadband and energy networks and repairing schools have clear benefits. But, if there is no economic argument for getting high speed Internet access to people in rural areas, once the government no longer underwrites broadband infrastructure, the future of these projects may not be bright. The same is true for the energy grid. Building a system that will move wind generated power from the center of the country to the coasts is only viable for any extended period if wind power is a more cost efficient alternative to fossil fuels. It is not clear that wind has that advantage now.
If the focus of the Administration’s programs were to be directed toward people who are from demographic segments that are facing chronic unemployment, permanent and beneficial change in the work landscape could be created. One of the ways to approach this is remarkably simple. High school dropouts and undertrained high school graduates need skills. Older workers sometime need the opportunity to acquire new skills as well. The stimulus package has not provided the money that could be used to educate those who might have better job prospects with some modest training.
Congress and the Administration have succumbed to the concept that getting people back to work relies on investing in “themes” and not in people. Rebuilding the infrastructure is a favorite theme of politicians. Roads and schools always need repairing. Fixing them is for the public good.
These political interests have chosen to avoid the nearly intractable problem of giving tools to those who are inadequately trained to do any skilled labor. Even if they are lucky enough to find something at the minimum wage, they will still live just around the poverty level. Politicians must understand that this condition will never be in the public’s best interest.
Many of the young people who graduate from college this year won’t find work. Instead, many of them will have access to government loans. They will move on to two or three years of graduate school, years in which they may not have to work at all and can wait out the recession. They will be part of another graduating class in 2011 or 2012. Not everyone will be so lucky
Douglas A. McIntyre
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