With more than half of college graduates having difficulty finding a good job, the economy is weighing heavily on the minds of many high school students who are thinking about careers.
About 1.5 million or 54 percent of recent college graduates were jobless or underemployed in 2011, the most since 2000, according to an Associated Press analysis conducted by the Economic Policy Institute.
The average rate of joblessness or underemployment for recent college graduates is about 40 percent. Underemployment refers to jobs that do not require the employee's level of education, skill or experience.
Many of these college graduates are questioning career decisions they made before the recession, when they were in high school.
This new reality is a lesson that many area high school graduates at a job fair Thursday said they are taking to heart.
"I'm sure a lot of people, if they could go back in time, might pick a different major or go to a trade school," said Joseph Johnston, 18, of Middle Township.
He is graduating next month from Middle Township High School with plans to study business in the fall at Brigham Young University.
"I think I'll be fine when I graduate. I am very excited about moving on to the next phase of my life," he said.
Johnston attended the job fair at Cape May Technical High School. The fair gave students opportunities to apply for summer jobs or consider career choices.
Stacy Dotts, an infection-control nurse at Crest Haven Nursing Home, said health care is a fertile field for jobs in southern New Jersey.
"Health care is a vast industry that will always offer job opportunities," she said. "With Baby Boomers living longer, the need will be there for these graduates."
Evan Miller, 18, of Cape May, has been accepted to Virginia Tech, where he wants to study medicine. He plans to attend Atlantic Cape Community College in the fall.
"I picked pre-med because I know I can definitely get a job out of college," he said.
Drexel University professor Paul Harrington, who co-authored last week's jobs report, said employment by workers 55 and older grew during the recession while employment by recent graduates plummeted.
"The recession really punishes young people," he said.
Harrington said high school graduates today are advised to follow through with their college educations. Those who don't get a degree rack up college debt but fare no better in the job market than their fellow high school graduates.
"If you spend a couple years in college and don't get a degree, that doesn't help you at all," he said. "The job market won't reward you for it."
For college graduates, the future remains bright -- or at least brighter.
Workers 25 and older who have a college degree still find employment much more easily than those who have only a high school diploma, according to federal March unemployment figures. The national unemployment rate for high school graduates is 8 percent compared to just 4.2 percent for college graduates.
And this disparity was even greater at the peak of the recession.
About 48 million American workers have a college degree compared to 74 million who have some college education but only a high school diploma. Another 12 million workers have no diploma.
The temptation might be to blame unemployed college graduates for the career decisions they made. But it's simply not their fault, said Heidi Shierholz, a labor-market economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
"It's important to not act like they did something wrong. Four years from now, these high school students probably will have an easier time finding a job. But it won't be because they're smarter or better job seekers. It will be because they're luckier," she said.
In an independent study she authored this week for the institute, Shierholz found that along with high unemployment, recent college graduates also face substantially lower wages than students who graduated a decade ago and higher debt.
"It's timing," she said. "It's just their bad luck."
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