High school grads face tough job market

More skills key, but in which fields?
By Paul Archipley | Jun 05, 2013

As seniors receive their diplomas this week at the Mukilteo School District’s three high schools, a majority – about 70 percent – can be expected to continue their education.

Based on statistics from past years, those students who are going on to higher education will be split about equally between four-year colleges (48 percent) and community colleges (45 percent), while another 5 percent will attend tech or trade schools.

More than 40 percent of graduates, whether continuing their education or not, will be working full- or part-time.

Ever since the rise of the global economy, and the fallout from the Great Recession, the employment landscape has dramatically changed.

Today’s grads, more than ever, will be competing in a tight job market that requires more skills.

Curtis Takahashi, program manager for the Workforce Development Council Snohomish County, said that 30 years ago a young person with only a high school diploma in hand could get a job offering a living wage.

Those days are over.

“There’s less opportunity today,” Takahashi said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you need a college degree, but you’re going to need something to get long-term career employment.”

Nationally, large percentages of high school graduates go on to college, but only a minority of them manages to cross the finish line.

According to the Pathways to Prosperity Project, a 2011 study of the American educational system by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, only 40 percent of students who go to college have earned an A.A. degree or higher by the time they reach age 27.

The future is even less promising for high school dropouts. Without the skills that employers increasingly demand, dropouts face a lifetime of poverty and struggle.

According to the Harvard study, whether they drop out of high school or college, students tell researchers they simply don’t see “a clear, transparent connection between their program of study and tangible opportunities in the labor market.”

School districts and job training programs across America, including locally, are working hard to establish that connection.

The Mukilteo School District is working and reworking STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) programs, even beginning at the elementary school level, to encourage more students to gravitate toward careers that require those academic skills.

The most recent example, perhaps, is a Boeing internship program offered for the first time this summer to Mariner juniors.

Up to three paid interns, working with a Boeing mentor on projects with real-world applications, will gain insight into engineering, technology and business careers.

At WorkSource Snohomish County, a program called YouthBuild helps high school dropouts earn their GED while training in the construction trades.

Increasingly, apprenticeships are developing that combine a half-day of work with a half-day in class.

According to Takahashi, future jobs are likely to be found in the trades, aerospace, culinary arts and healthcare.

Likewise, some industries like the retail trade offer opportunities for advancement.

Smart young people who struggled in school might find their path there, learning management and supervisory skills, how to communicate, even learning to get to work on time.

“These are essential skills that employers are looking for,” Takahashi said.

The Blueprint Partnership, a Snohomish County coalition of local school districts, colleges, county government, Economic Alliance Snohomish County, and the Workforce Development Council, has been working to address the county’s economic health since 2003.

High on the partnership’s list of objectives has been fostering the development of skilled workers to fill the jobs that are available.

The community colleges, in particular, are “very responsive” to employer needs. They closely watch trends and adjust curricula as needed.

If trends continue as expected, the job market will need a third who have full college degrees, a third who have two-year degrees or tech/trade skills, and a third who have high school diplomas, Takahashi said.

Those trained in the STEM disciplines, in particular, are likely to grab the higher wage jobs.

Certainly, those who earn bachelor degrees or higher will be in demand, but even then, with the high cost of education today, students should carefully consider their choices.

“A degree just for the sake of a degree may sometimes be helpful, but I don’t know how far you’d get with a major in Eastern European Slavic Languages,” Takahashi said.

“You should invest your education dollars wisely.”

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