The Future of Work for High School Grads

In the coming years, the economy will add millions of jobs for Americans with only a high school diploma. But the pay will be pretty abysmal. Get ready for the McJobs. 



These are lean times for Americans who lack a college education. With an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent, someone with only a high school diploma is twice as likely to be without a job as someone who has a bachelor's degree. Meanwhile, more and more high school grads have simply ceased looking for work, dropping their labor force participation rate to an astoundingly low 59.6 percent. The jobs that are opening for them them tend to be in very low-skill, very low-pay fields. 

This week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its job growth predictions through 2020, when it expects to United States to return to full employment. They contain a bit of hope for America's least educated workers -- but not much. In the coming years, the government expects that 63% of all new jobs will require a high school degree or less. That's the good news. The bad news: the pay. 

According to the BLS, there will be 20.4 million more jobs in 2020 than there were in 2010. About 12.8 million of those jobs will require a high school degree or less. Many of those will be clustered in services. The country will need more healthcare aides to look after a rapidly aging population. There will be more work in food preparation, retail, and office administration. The graph below depicts the occupations requiring a high school degree or less that are expected to add the most jobs (from left to right).


So McDonald's will need to hire more workers for its kitchens. J. Crew will need more people helping customers in their stores. Nursing homes will be on the lookout for people willing and able to watch after 80-year-olds. These are all necessary jobs. But as careers, they offer limited prospects. The next graph shows the same list of fast-growing jobs along the X-axis, but this time the Y-axis represents annual wages. The top 14 jobs for have typical wages under $40,000.


There are a few solidly middle-class jobs tucked in here -- a good salesperson for a wholesaler averages $62,000 a year. An administrative support supervisor takes home more than $50,000 a year. A carpenter makes $43,000. But most of these jobs offer between $18,000 and $30,000 a year. The pay for the jobs at the far left, which will generate the most employment growth, is particularly abysmal. 

Of course, some of these jobs might never materialize at all. It's easy to imagine computers taking over more tasks handled now by low-level office workers or receptionists. Online shopping could take a bite out of retail. 

The job market might be healed by 2020. But if it does, we'll be contending with the same social and economic forces that have been eroding the middle class for decades. Those without higher education will still be struggling to get by.  


*Required disclaimer: Economies are fickle beasts and forecasting job growth eight years down the line is, well, rather tricky. But these numbers still give us a reasonable idea of what to expect if we were to extrapolate from current trends. 


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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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