Diploma isn't a ticket to freedom but to work

June 09, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Emerging from graduation ceremonies, and from their parents' proud, lingering embraces, the kids at Fallston High School floated rapturously across a suburban parking lot the other evening and discovered unanticipated greetings from - Ugh! - the American workplace.

"Summer Work," read stickers placed on hundreds of car windows outside the auditorium where they'd been handed their diplomas only moments earlier. "Full-time/part-time. Guaranteed pay, $10.75 starting rate."

For those with nothing on their minds more immediately pressing than the quickest route to the various oblivions, liquid and otherwise, of Ocean City, this was a sobering reminder:

Oh, yeah.


The moment had arrived when merely plodding through 12th grade algebra didn't look as overwhelming as it once had, where the most intimidating thing in the world was no longer getting through the day without some kid named Moose dribbling the class nerd like a basketball across the cafeteria floor to the squeally delight of the cutest girls in the class. Real work would soon be required, and this was the wake-up call, only moments after receiving diplomas that they'd foolishly imagined to be certificates of eternal freedom.

So, what about all those stickers left on car windows? The stickers listed a telephone number, and on the other end of the phone yesterday morning was a message saying the company was one College Personnel Placement Service of Vector. A tape-recorded female voice said the company's business involved "no door-to-door sales, no telephone sales or multilevel marketing," whatever that is.

But the recording didn't say way what the job did entail, and beyond offering directions to the company office in Bel Air and notice that interviews would be held for a single hour each afternoon, there was no further identification of the company, and no other phone number. What firm opens the door to job applicants and doesn't mention the job involved?

The only other business named Vector in Harford County is a security firm, and it offered assurances yesterday that it hadn't placed the stickers on any car.

Welcome to the world of work, kids, where it can get a little sticky.

For openers, there are so many of these newly minted graduates. Fallston High School, for example, is in Harford County, but its commencement exercises had to be held at Towson University. There was no other way to comfortably fit 360 graduates and assorted friends and relatives into one place.

Eight years ago, said Principal Robert Pfau, Fallston had 186 graduates. But the boom in Harford County's population has created school redistricting, and thus the biggest graduating class in Fallston's history.

Most of these kids can put off thoughts of specific career paths a little longer. Listen to a few figures out of Fallston: About 95 percent of the graduates will enter college next fall (most of them at four-year institutions). Of the 360 graduates, an astonishing 108 made the National Honor Society. There were 21 kids with 4.0 academic averages, 119 with 3.5 averages or better, and 186 who won certificates of merit for completing particularly rigorous courses of study with a 3.0 average or better. They won, collectively, about $6.7 million in college scholarships.

Since they're so smart, here's their first lesson in economics: College, for all its expense, helps.

Twenty years ago, college graduates out-earned high school graduates by 38 percent. Today, it's 69 percent. In the past 20 years, real wages have risen more than 4 percent for college graduates, but have dropped 20 percent for those with only a high school diploma.

In case nobody mentioned it to today's graduates, the American workplace divides increasingly into haves and have-nots. It's a boom economy, but the weekend newspapers noted that the number of personal bankruptcy filings hit record numbers last year for the third consecutive year - 1.35 million people, or one in every 70 households. In Maryland, nearly 9,000 people filed for bankruptcy protection in the first quarter of this year.

Some of this is a process that makes bankruptcy filings too easy, and some of it's a mentality that says charge it now, worry about it later. But it's also a reflection of the country's economic divisions, and a middle class feeling increasingly pressured.

Growth in Maryland jobs is reportedly sluggish, an increase of 1 percent in the past year, which puts Maryland far behind expansion in nearby Delaware and Virginia. In fact, Maryland ranks 46th of the 50 states in job growth.

All of this is something for today's grads to ponder, the moment they navigate their way back from Ocean City and recollect those little stickers placed on their car windows, which may look HTC a little more enticing now than they did the other night, when the kids were handed their diplomas and mistook them for certificates of eternal freedom.

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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