America's job disaster Bob Herbert

December 03, 1993

THE vast majority of American young people, three out of four, never get a college degree. And the schooling they do receive does not prepare them well for the world of work.

These youngsters may be experts at video games, they may have an eye for fashion and a sense of style, they may be connoisseurs of MTV -- but most of them are inept at the nearly lifelong task of finding and holding a job.

According to the Department of Labor: "They receive little guidance on how to move into a career that can support a family. Their reading, writing, math and communications skills are largely inadequate for the demands of today's quality employers."

New York Telephone once tested 57,000 applicants before finding 2,100 who were qualified for entry-level technical jobs.

Studies have shown that in the 1980s, the real wages of men with college degrees increased modestly, while high school graduates saw their wages decline by 9 percent, and the wages of dropouts fell by a precipitous 12 percent. In those 10 years the earnings gap between high school and college graduates doubled.

Instead of getting better, the situation is growing worse. College graduates are having a harder and harder time finding employment, and when they have to settle for less they put a downward squeeze on everybody else in the job market. Those at the bottom get squeezed out.

For black and Latino young people in the nation's biggest cities, conditions have become catastrophic. Their official rate of unemployment ranges from 25 to 40 percent.

But Jack Wuest, executive director of a program in Chicago called the Alternative Schools Network, noted that: "Over 75 to 80 percent of minority youth are not ever counted in the official unemployment rate because they are not even looking for work. They often live in neighborhoods where there are no jobs to be found."

And when you can't find a job, it's easy to find trouble.

Job training advocates have felt for many years that it would be helpful if the United States had a school-to-work program, a national effort to aid the passage of young people into the increasingly complex world of employment.

Bill Clinton was a supporter and he has come up with a program called the "School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1993." It has passed the House and will be taken up by the Senate early next year. It will do very little.

The original idea was to bring the school and work experiences together for young people. In addition to their academic work, they would receive some occupational training and real employment experience, thus giving them a boost toward a career. There would also be a component for dropouts.

The Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, headed by Ira Magaziner and with Hillary Rodham Clinton as a staff person, reported in 1990 that "America may have the worst school-to-work transition system of any advanced industrial country. Students who know few adults to help them get their first job are left to sink or swim."

President Clinton's program will not change that. In introducing the legislation, Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., said, "It is a small investment that will yield dramatic returns in productivity."

"Small" is the operative word. Minuscule would be better. Only $100 million is available for the entire program the first year. It's anybody's guess after that.

To put it in perspective, consider that the Senate, in approving its crime bill earlier this month, authorized the expenditure of $3 billion to finance the construction of 10 new regional prisons, and another $3 billion for boot camps and other programs for young offenders.

Referring to the funding levels of the school-to-work initiative, Bob Taggart, president of the Remediation and Training Institute in Alexandria, Va., said: "There's just enough water to water the topsoil of consultants and policy gurus. The money is just not going to get down there to kids in need."

There is a violent crime emergency in the United States, and there is an employment crisis. The policy makers seem unable to understand the ways in which they are linked, and the degree to which the former is driven by the latter.

Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.

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