DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All this summer, we've been talking about youth unemployment. And some economists say there's a crisis here. The unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 24 is more than double the overall national rate. And today, we're going to explore some possible solutions. We spoke with Rory O'Sullivan. He's the deputy director of Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit that works to inform young people about issues important to them, and that includes higher education and jobs. O'Sullivan says the economic troubles of the last few years have hit young people hardest.
RORY O'SULLIVAN: There's no question that the economy has changed dramatically for our generation compared to 20, 30 years ago. And you need some kind of postsecondary credential, whether it's a one-year degree, or a two-year associate's degree, or a four-year degree, to really be successful. And right now, the unemployment rates for someone with just a high school diploma are three times that of someone with a four-year college degree.
GREENE: Can high school programs be strengthened to better prepare people for the workplace and make them more hirable?
O'SULLIVAN: One of the key challenges we're facing is that our education system hasn't caught up with the demands of the labor force. Nearly 60 percent of the workforce is expected to need some kind of credential beyond high school in the next decade. And we just haven't got to a place where we can get that many folks in our population up to the degrees they need in the growing fields that we know they're going to be jobs for in the 21st century.
GREENE: Give me a success story, if you've seen one, where there's a program in place that seems maybe to be working, that is helping someone graduating high school, who then doesn't have any sort of degree beyond that, but they are able to get matched with a good job.
O'SULLIVAN: One example of a success story we've seen, that doesn't necessarily even need to occur in a college setting, is The Apprentice School in Newport News, Virginia. In this case, it has to do with shipbuilding. And they've had huge success where the employer there has had a much more highly skilled workforce than many people in that business and that industry. And the young people there get training that is on-the-job and leads to a very successful career thereafter. We'd like to see much greater outreach so that, you know, when you come out of high school, you know there's this menu of options for you. You can go get a credential at a community college. You can go to a four-year degree. You know, or you can go to an apprenticeship program that's going to pay, in many cases, just as well or better, if it's in the right profession.
GREENE: If it looks like an apprenticeship program, like the one you're describing in Virginia, the shipbuilding industry, is working so well, what is holding back other industries from getting programs like that going?
O'SULLIVAN: I think a lot of it is just institutional in the United States. We've always had this expectation that you go through high school with this liberal arts degree path, which, you know, there are a lot of liberal arts majors that do really well. But it's not the only way to get skills. Another thing to realize is that maybe you don't want to work in the trades where a lot of apprenticeships are. There's actually growing opportunities for apprenticeships in things like IT and health care. And I think we need to encourage more businesses to think about training in that way in those fields.
GREENE: Is there a role for guidance counselors, for example, to figure out which students sort of coming to them for help might really match well with a job as an electrician, a plumber, and to really encourage them in that direction?
O'SULLIVAN: There's a huge role for guidance counselors. And it's one of the major problems we face as a country. Right now, there's nearly 500 students for every single guidance counselor out there in America.
O'SULLIVAN: And the recommended ratio is really something like 250 students to 1, which still sounds like a lot, but something much more manageable.
GREENE: Double what should be the maximum caseload.
O'SULLIVAN: Exactly. And so there's a lot of young people who don't know about those opportunities for federal financial aid or things like apprenticeships and as a result, aren't getting to the careers and the education that they need to be successful.
GREENE: Are you optimistic that, for people who are teenagers now or early 20s, that the situation is going to get easier, in time, for them?
O'SULLIVAN: You know, we - one thing that we find out at Young Invincibles - I mean, we talk to young people every day about these problems. And there's two main themes that you'll hear. I mean, our generation is very clear-eyed about the challenges that they're facing and as a result, understandably feel a lot of anxiety when they look at these unemployment numbers. Many of them are struggling through jobs where they're not working as much they want to, if they have a job at all. But we're also a very optimist generation. And one good thing is that, in general, we've got that message. You know, 7 out of 10 high school graduating seniors end up in an institution of higher education the following fall. If we can get more people through in degrees in the right industries and the right fields, we can get our generation back on track.
GREENE: Rory O'Sullivan, really interesting talking to you. Thanks for coming by.
O'SULLIVAN: Thanks so much, David.
GREENE: He's the deputy director of Young Invincibles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.