Most High School Grads Desperate For Work, New Study Finds

Since Leighann Neil graduated from high school in 2008, she has struggled to hold onto a permanent job, and has worked as a dispatcher in addition to a gig grinding mortar. She sends out roughly 20 resumes a month for secretarial jobs, but she has yet to hear back from any.

"Employers are looking for someone who has a college degree," says Neil, 23, who has one child and another on the way. They and her child's father live with Neil's mother in Blountsville, Ala.

Neil's struggles have become common among young adults. According to a new survey by Rutgers University, only 30 percent of recent high school graduates not enrolled in further study have a full-time job. Another 23 percent work part-time. The study, of 544 grads from the high school classes of 2006 through 2011, found that even those with jobs are probably just eking out an existence -- their average hourly pay is $9.25, only $2 above the federal minimum wage.

Those who graduated after the financial crisis hit in 2008 have it much worse; only 16 percent of them have full-time jobs, and only 22 percent work part-time.

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None of the people studied had a post-secondary degree, nor were they enrolled full-time in school.

"The study shows that opportunity is just moving further and further away from people who don't have a post-secondary education," says Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers and the director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, which put together the study. "They really have not entered adulthood."

It has long been a struggle to compete in the workforce with only a high school degree, but that's dramatically worsened afterthe Great Recession. According to research compiled by the Washington D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate for high school graduates not enrolled in further schooling nearly doubled, from 17.5 percent in 2007 to 31.1 last year.

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By comparison, the last Heldrich study found that half of the college grads from the classes of 2006 through 2011 had full-time jobs.

Although nearly 1 in 3 high school grads in the Rutgers study has full-time work, that most likely is the result of "personal connections," says Van Horn.

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He says the job market is so punishing that if a high school grad isn't college-bound, he or she is better off working part-time while in high school so as to improve the odds of getting a job upon graduation.

The study did not identify which particularly geographic regions have the highest rate of unemployed high school grads, says Van Horn, but found that unemployment tends to run deepest among minority groups. "There's a lot of evidence that there is a barrier against borrowing among low income people from minority backgrounds," he says. "It's understandable, but in denying themselves [advanced degree], they are being counterproductive."

With the national student loan debt recently surpassing a total of $1 trillion, some like venture capitalist Peter Thiel have begun to question the value of a college degree. But this study suggests that it is still the better choice for the vast majority of teens. Indeed, he notes you are likelier to earn a million dollars over your life if you've completed college than if you haven't.

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