Dick Meister: Make it a truly happy graduation day

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By Dick Meister

 

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

It's that grand time of the year for high school and college seniors. Time for graduation. Time for them to enter the world of full-time work.  Conventional wisdom insists their education will enable them to find good job opportunities and financial rewards.

 A new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows, however, that recent graduates are generally having far more problems with the job market than conventional wisdom would  suggest.

 The basic economic facts make that all too clear. Consider these EPI findings :

*About one-third of high school graduates aged 17 to 20 are unemployed and more than half are underemployed – involuntarily working only part time or holding jobs that don't require skills they've learned in school. The rates for African-American and Latino graduates are particularly high.

*As for college graduates, about 10 percent of them are jobless, about one-fifth of them underemployed.

College and high school graduates alike may find that their lack of on-the-job experience will cause employers to bypass them, regardless of their academic background.

Even if they do manage to find full-time jobs, graduates' lack of seniority, as the EPI studies note, "makes them likely candidates for being laid off when the firm falls on hard times."

Graduates aren't the only young workers unable to find secure jobs. The unemployment rate for workers under 25, whether graduates or not, has remained at about 16 percent, or twice the rate for workers generally. That's higher than it has been in nearly 30 years.

Unemployment is but one of the serious economic problems facing graduates. Wages for the jobs that are available to them have been steadily declining to barely adequate levels. For instance: In 2011 wages paid college graduates aged 21 to 24 averaged only about $17 an hour or roughly $35,000 for the year.

Between 2000 and 2011, college graduates' pay dropped an average of more than 5 percent, less than 2 percent for men, 8.5 percent for women. High school graduates' pay overall dropped by about 11 percent.

There are state and federal assistance programs that could help poorly paid graduates. But the programs often don't cover young workers because the workers do not meet such eligibility requirements as having previously had significant work experience.

Many of the college graduates have the added burden of trying to pay back college loans. As the EPI report notes, "The cost of higher education has grown far more than median family income, leaving students with little choice but to take out loans" which they may spend years trying to repay.

What's needed above all – and needed quickly – are government policies that, as EPI economist Heidi Shierholz says, are new policies "that will generate strong job growth overall, such as fiscal relief to states, substantial additional investment in infrastructure, expanded safety net measures, and direct job creation programs in communities particularly affected by unemployment."

She's right. Such government action will be essential if the promise of their education is to be fully realized by the young people who are about to graduate from America's high schools and colleges, if all young Americans are to reach their full potential, and if the nation is to reach true prosperity.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.