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RECENT HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATES AND THE GREAT RECESSION: Only 27 Percent of Recent High School Graduates Have Full-Time Jobs, Report Finds

The vast majority of recent high school graduates who are not attending college have been left out of the workforce or even job training and frankly are struggling to survive.”

Only 27 percent of recent high school graduates have full-time jobs, according to a new national survey of individuals who graduated from high school from 2006 to 2011 and are not attending college full time. The report also finds that 30 percent are completely unemployed while another 15 percent are employed part time but are looking for a full-time job. The report, Left Out. Forgotten? Recent High School Graduates and the Great Recession, was released by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University on June 6.

“The vast majority of recent high school graduates who are not attending college have been left out of the workforce or even job training and frankly are struggling to survive,” said Carl Van Horn, professor and director of the Heldrich Center and a coauthor of the study. “Typically, they are either unemployed entirely or working in part-time, temporary jobs that do not pay them enough to earn even a poverty-level income. To make matters worse, many jobs that do not require a college education are being snapped up by recent college graduates who are also struggling to get a toe-hold in a slow job market.”

Recent HS pic

According to the report, individuals who graduated from high school in the “pre-recession” years of 2006, 2007, and 2008 fare better than individuals who graduated in the “recession era” years of 2009, 2010, and 2011. As shown in the table to the right, 37 percent of the individuals who graduated from high school in the pre-recession years are employed full time, compared to only 16 percent who graduated in the recession era.

The annual earnings of those working full-time are barely enough to keep them out of poverty, the report finds. Specifically, 90 percent are paid hourly and receive a median wage of $9.25 per hour, or $2.00 above the federal minimum wage. When asked why they took their current job, half of high school graduates said “they just needed a job” or it was “the only job available.” Only 16 percent took their job because it was what they “wanted to do.”

The report notes that wages have declined for all groups of young graduates—high school and college alike—in the aftermath of the “Great Recession,” which began in late 2007 and ended in 2009. However, it finds that wages for young high school graduates have dropped twice as much as those for young college graduates.

“Not only do high school graduates earn less than college graduates, they also occupy less stable employment,” the report notes. “Most of these high school graduates’ jobs—75 percent—were reported as temporary positions. With this combination of temporary, low-wage work, it is likely that few of the recent high school graduates would have been able to earn an annual income of $10,890 to exceed the official federal poverty level for a single household.”

The report also surveys recent high school graduates on their high school experience: 70 percent “liked” high school and more than half said they made mainly A or B grades in high school. When asked how well their high school education prepared them for the job market, 30 percent said “not very well” and 21 percent said “not well at all.” Only 8 percent said that they were “extremely well” prepared.

When asked what they would change about their high school experience, 28 percent said they should have been more careful about the courses they took as electives and 23 percent said they should have taken more classes directly related to preparing for a career. Interestingly, twice as many African Americans and Hispanics (43 percent) as whites (21 percent) said they should have been more careful in selecting electives.1

The report also reveals that most individuals (63 percent) planned to go to college when they entered high school but failed to do so; only 20 percent said they planned to end their education after high school. When asked why they did not go to college, 40 percent said they could not afford it, 30 percent said they needed to work, and 10 percent had children or family members they had to take care of.

When asked whether they would need additional education to have the successful career they want, 70 percent of recent high school graduates said they would. Unfortunately, only 38 percent said they “definitely” plan to attend college in the next five years; another 25 percent said they “probably will.” Among the 17 percent of individuals who “definitely” or “probably” will NOT go back to college, 34 percent said they cannot afford it and 37 percent said they need to work.

“The swath of American youth we are describing with this sample is enormous, on the order of 15 million people or more, who are largely invisible and whose status is little better than that of itinerant workers,” said Cliff Zukin, professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers and a coauthor of the study. “This will remain a large policy problem even as the economy begins to recover.”

The complete report, including data from the questionnaire, is available at

1  The report could not break out African American and Hispanic respondents separately given their small number in the sample.

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