By Noreen O'Donnell
John Johnson wants a job driving trucks, but the 52-year-old New York City resident left high school without graduating. In this unforgiving economy, he has been stymied.
Few things show the importance of education as do America's unemployment numbers. Fourteen million Americans were not working last month, approximately 9 percent of the adult working population. But for dropouts, the unemployment rate was 16.5 percent.
"That is absolutely morally unacceptable and it’s economically unsustainable," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "There are no good jobs … today for a high school dropout, none, in the legal economy."
The American economy is expected to add 2 million jobs in this decade in computer design, scientific consulting and similar fields — all out of reach of the million students who drop out each year. Those students will be more than three times more likely to be unemployed than graduates with a college degree.
Johnson, who spoke to The Daily outside a New York state Labor Department office, said he left school to sell drugs — though he later got an equivalency diploma. He said charter schools do a better job than regular schools because they do not tolerate violence.
"You've got a lot of foolishness in the ghetto," he said.
American education is at a juncture. Its top schools are among the world's best, but too many others are not preparing their students to compete.
The U.S. no longer leads the world in college graduates. It comes in ninth. It does not top international exams comparing 15-year-olds in industrialized and some developing countries. Depending on the subject, it ranks between 14th and 25th.
"Jobs, companies are going to migrate to where … the smartest, the most informed, the knowledge workers are going to be," Duncan said. "And it might be here or it might be in a hundred other countries, and they're going to find where those productive workers are and they're going to move … to those places."
Across the country, as many as one in four students will leave school without graduating. Meanwhile, nearly half of all new jobs over the next 10 years will require more than a high school degree, in fields that will be concentrated in health care, information technology and environmental sustainability, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Dante Smith is an eighth-grader at Harbor Science and Arts Charter School in New York City. He knows he has to succeed in school to get a good job, he said. It's what his father wants for him.
"I want to do something with my life," he said. "I want to get somewhere."
Too many teenagers don't make the connection between school and their future, and for those who leave school without getting a degree, even the armed forces no longer provide an easy alternative. One in five recent high school graduates is unqualified academically to enlist in the Army, according to "Shut Out of the Military," a report released in December and produced by The Education Trust.
A survey conducted by the Business Roundtable, an association of business leaders, found that half of U.S. employers report a sizable gap between their needs and their employees' skills. Two-thirds anticipate needing at least some new employees who have earned an associate’s degree or higher.
Employees will have to be flexible and adaptable, said Sharon Nunes, a vice president of green innovations at IBM, "and to constantly be looking at what the market is doing."
Barry O’Callaghan, chief executive officer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Boston said, "Ultimately, if we’re not graduating high school kids that are strong in science, technology, engineering and math then they cannot become engineers and they cannot compete for the computer developer job at Facebook.
"Those jobs will be dominated by their Chinese and Indian counterparts."
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