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Pandemic draws high school grads to skip college, fill worker shortage

A hiring sign is displayed in Downers Grove, III., on June 24, 2021. The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell to a fresh pandemic low last week, Thursday, Nov. 4, another sign the job market is healing after last year's coronavirus recession. Jobless claims dropped by 14,000 to 269,000 last week. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

High school graduates increasingly are opting to fill worker vacancies as an alternative to college amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a school-to-career vocational training program.

Jobs for America’s Graduates provides vocational training to 75,000 middle and high school students in 40 states and two U.S. territories. It reports that a record 82% of its graduating students went directly into full-time employment at the end of the 2020-21 academic year — an unprecedented percentage, compared to the previous high of 76%.

“The biggest change is that our young people are getting far more full-time jobs and with benefits, the most in our history,” said Ken Smith, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit. “Also, more front-line health care jobs than usual is a second important change.”

Demand for high school graduates has soared especially in the hospitality, retail, medical and transportation industries, according to Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG).

“Many of the retail and hospitality jobs were hit hardest during the pandemic; these are also the industries where many of our young people get their first jobs while in JAG,” said Niki Childers, the vocational program’s director of partnerships.

“Since the pandemic, those same industries, along with others, are struggling to rebound from the effects and are now offering hiring bonuses, increased hourly wages and competitive benefits packages that are very attractive to a young person just graduating high school,” she added.

The Jobs for America’s Graduates program also reported record highs in its graduation rate (96.8%) and in the full-time placement rate of students in jobs, college or the military (92%) last year.

JAG’s results come amid employer frustration over persistent worker shortages in various industries amid the coronavirus. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month that, as of Oct. 31, job openings had increased to 11 million while the number of hires remained at 6.5 million. The unemployment rate is 4.2%.

In addition, the nation’s labor force lost 3.8 million workers aged 45 to 64 between 2010 and 2020 and will lose 1.5 million workers aged 16 to 24 between 2020 and 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meanwhile, college enrollment this fall was down for the second year in a row, and a record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September, suggesting that employer demand for high school graduates could rise next spring.

The value of some college degrees has been eroded by a variety of factors including long-term debt, vaccine mandates, generous unemployment benefits and difficulty in obtaining child care, said Hans Dau, CEO of Mitchell Madison Group business consulting firm.

“The fact that companies are hiring more high school graduates is just the free market expressing how much it values certain college degrees: apparently not very much,” said Mr. Dau, a supply chain analyst.

Financial analysts said high school seniors who have vocational training or are willing to receive it on the job would be wise to enter the workforce right after graduation this spring.

“You’ll get a job where you can learn and make money, and avoid years of debt and four years of toil getting most college degrees,” said Charles Mizrahi, a Wall Street trader.

Christine McDaniel, a senior fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center free-market think tank, said that “a system of universal higher education is not necessarily optimal” in an economy that lacks qualified craft workers to meet the growing demand for new home construction.

“Labor supply is not keeping up with demand,” said Ms. McDaniel, a former assistant deputy secretary of the Treasury. “So the fact that we are seeing employers offer more attractive hiring packages and vocational training reflects the supply and demand in the labor market.”

However, Brian Marks, who teaches economics at the University of New Haven, said it’s too early to tell whether the rising demand for high school graduates will last.

“We may also be witnessing a period in which those attending college are seeking part-time, paid, employment experiences,” he said. “This could be nothing more than a short-term fix to the current labor imbalance.”

He predicted that wages will remain higher on balance for employees with advanced degrees, even as high school graduates reevaluate college and businesses reexamine career training and education requirements in their employment packages.

“We may have a generation of workers who may be more ‘asset-specific’ to a certain type of job or employer, given the nature of the training,” Mr. Marks said. “While certain aspects of the economy have been transformed by the COVID-19 public health crisis or accelerated as a result of the crisis because of certain pre-existing economic conditions, the relationship between education and income will not likely disappear in the long run.”

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