Many high school grads lack skills, hit dead end

June 13, 1993|By Gene Marlowe | Gene Marlowe,Media General News Service

WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of thousands of high school graduates are headed into the world to spend the next 10 or 15 years bumping from one dead-end job to another.

This year's graduates were in the second grade when a national education commission warned that America was "a nation at risk" because of mediocre schools. But little changed and many slipped through 12 years of school without acquiring the skills for economic survival.

Those not headed for college or further training remain "the forgotten half." Among men ages 29 to 31 whose highest degree is a high school diploma, one in three has held his current job for less than a year.

Behind that statistic lies frustration and heartbreak. The United States is notorious among industrialized countries for sending nearly half of its high school graduates forth to spend the first years of their careers essentially drifting.

"At age 25, Americans who have not attended college often find themselves no higher up the job ladder than they were at age 18. Their German counterparts, by contrast, usually hold well-paying skilled jobs," Wilfried Prewo, a German industrial official, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in February.

Gary Burtless, a Brookings Institution economist who helped write "Growth With Equity," attributes the growing wage disparity in this country in part to the poor education of those who stop with high school.

"American high school graduates typically bring very modest skills to the workplace," Mr. Burtless said at a recent meeting of business economists.

Nearly half of the nation's 17-year-olds cannot convert nine parts out of a hundred into a percentage. In science and math, American 14-year-olds know less than those in the other industrialized countries.

High schools' failure is offset for many youngsters by their enrollment in post-secondary schools. Approximately 55 percent go on to college or community college, "where they learn what their counterparts overseas have already been taught in high school," Mr. Burtless said.

But 45 percent don't get beyond high school, and for Mr. Burtless, there is a question of equity here.

"Taxpayers spend a lot less educating and training workers who receive no schooling after high school," he said.

A little more than $10,000 is spent on the education of noncollege 16- to 24-year-olds; for those in college, public spending rises to $25,000.

Companies that hire high school grads rarely make up the deficiency. Few spend much, if anything, improving the skills of their employees. Most know that high school grads won't stay long.

Mr. Burtless found that only half of the high school grads in the work force for six years have had any formal training, and usually they paid for it themselves.

Most companies are willing to train only employees with a college degree who are considered managerial or specialist personnel.

Compare this to a country like Germany. There, 70 percent of the high school graduates sign up for company-based training or an apprenticeship -- a sharp contrast "with the aimless wandering from minimum-wage job to minimum-wage job of many American high school graduates," Mr. Prewo says.

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