No easy route to good jobs

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Graduates of Chicago Public Schools who do not attend college have a hard time finding work, especially higher-paying work, and African-American students fare worst in the job market, according to a report from the Office of Post-Secondary Education.

Fewer than half of graduates from the Class of 2004 who did not go on to college were employed in the fall following graduation, the study found. Two-thirds of graduates worked at some point in the year after graduation, but slightly less than half worked the full year.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of data from the report found that graduates of career academy high schools were less likely to find jobs than graduates of both neighborhood high schools and selective college-prep high schools. Only one career academy, Prosser, was among the 10 schools with the highest placement rates.

Overall, Noble Street Charter and Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences had the highest job placement rates, while Corliss High and Phillips High had the lowest (except for now-shuttered South Shore High).

The study, based on data from the Illinois Dept. of Employment Security for the period between Oct. 1, 2004, and Oct. 1, 2005, also found that:

* The median salary for all graduates was just $5,900. Those who worked the full year had a median salary of only about twice that amount.

* African-American graduates were less likely to find jobs and earned even lower salaries. Latino students were most likely to find jobs and work continuously throughout the year. Latinos had the highest median salary.

* Graduates from the district’s Education to Careers programs fared only slightly better than average in finding jobs. Median salaries were lower as well.

James Lewis, assistant professor of public affairs at Roosevelt University, says the findings are not surprising.

“The kids who go into career programs are usually well below average academically,” says Lewis, who directs Roosevelt’s Institute for Metropolitan Affairs. “The training they get isn’t enough to overcome deficits in reading and math, basic abilities that employers look for. These findings argue for sticking with the fundamentals, rather than saying, ‘OK, I’ll teach you how to weld or fix cars.'”

Lewis adds that the racial disparity in employment rates arises from a number of factors, including racism. Plenty of studies show levels of prejudice—in housing and employment—are higher against blacks than against Latinos, he says.

Latino communities often have more neighborhood-based employers, such as small retail stores and machine shops, Lewis adds. And Latino teenagers—often the children of first-generation immigrants who came here to find work—face strong pressure from their parents to focus on jobs rather than furthering their education.

“It’s not that black families don’t want kids to work, but the pressure Hispanic families put on high-school aged children to work is higher,” Lewis explains.

Robert Barnett, executive director of the nonprofit Jobs for Youth, which helps young people find employment, says many CPS graduates simply haven’t been prepared for the realities of the workplace.

“They’re just not prepared to interview and compete for the openings out there,” Barnett says.

Kylah Williams, a graduate of Whitney Young High School and a former Jobs for Youth client, says Whitney Young did prepare students to look for jobs—after college.

“In high school, they don’t tell you that people are getting hundreds of applications, and they’re looking for an excuse to throw yours away [so] you don’t want to give them any excuse to overlook you,” Williams says. “In high school, they don’t give it to you straight like that.”

Jill Wine-Banks, chief officer for the district’s Education to Careers program, says she’s not surprised by the report. “We have to be reasonable and recognize that there are not a lot of jobs that don’t require some post-secondary training,” she says.

Still, Wine-Banks says anecdotal evidence shows Education to Careers has a better track record than the report indicates. Her office’s goal is to train students for careers in which students can obtain either an industry-recognized credential or move directly into a program at a two-year college, and can earn at least $20,000 per year, she says.

An outside evaluation by a University of Illinois at Chicago economics professor found that Education to Careers students had better graduation rates, attendance, grade-point averages and gains in standardized test scores, Wine-Banks says. The study did not follow students beyond graduation to determine how they fared in the job market.

At schools with better job placement rates, preparing students for the workplace is a priority. At Noble Street Charter High, all seniors take a course on preparing for college or the workforce, says Superintendent Michael Milkie. Students learn the importance of basics such as being on time, turning in paperwork, communicating well and interviewing effectively. They also hear from employers who come to the school as guest speakers.

At the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, students get work experience, says Principal David Gilligan. “We have kids caring for the animals. We have kids who take care of plants on the weekends. We have a greenhouse, and you can’t let that go. All of these things require maintenance seven days a week.”

Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.