Even high school dropouts are finding jobs these days

Workers without high school degrees haven't had the easiest time finding a job. But now, the strong labor market is lifting workers who never earned their high school or GED diploma, providing them with the best chances of scoring a job in at least a decade.

In October, the unemployment rate for workers without high school degrees stood at 6 percent, compared  with a decade-long high of almost 16 percent in February 2010 in the wake of the Great Recession, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Workers without a high school diploma have historically suffered from higher unemployment rates than adults who have earned one, and when dropouts do find work, they tend to earn far less than better-educated Americans. While that continues to hold true, the gap between high school dropouts and more-educated workers is narrowing, thanks to hiring from employers who need lower-skilled workers. 

"Given the fact that we have a tight labor market, we have employers who are willing to come to the table in new ways," said Jennie Sparandara, executive director of global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase. "That does mean that people, particularly people without bachelor's degrees, are connected to the labor market at a higher rate than we've seen for a long time."

That's leading to more demand for job-training programs like those supported by JPMorgan Chase, which on Thursday said it would contribute $6 million to high schools and other educational institutions in the Washington, D.C., region with the goal of helping students learn skills they need to find jobs. 

The capital region has more open tech jobs than people to find them, although these aren't necessarily the types of tech jobs that Google and Facebook are looking to fill, Sparandara said. Instead, they're cybersecurity jobs or health care jobs such as lab technicians that may not require a college degree.

What employers want 

For the country's 10.3 million high school dropouts, the jobless rate for the first 10 months of the year dipped below the 70-year average unemployment rate for all U.S. workers, The Wall Street Journal noted. That hasn't happened since 1992. 

To be sure, the job market is still kinder to workers with at least a high school degree. The unemployment rate for this group stood at 4 percent in October, or 2 percentage points lower than high school dropouts. College grads, with an unemployment rate of 2 percent, are enjoying the strongest demand for their skills. 

After the Great Recession, employers could afford to be choosier about whom to hire -- and many "up-credentialed" their job openings. That's when a job that previously was open for high school grads now requires a college degree. But some companies are now reversing that trend, dropping the requirement for a college degree for many jobs. 

Brushing up on the basics

Even though employers may be more willing now to take a look at high school dropouts than a few years ago, job applicants still require basic "foundational" skills, Sparandara said. Often, that means workers need to improve those skills, such as literacy and numeracy, before they can get hired. 

"If you aren't working now, there are probably significant reasons why," Sparandara said. For instance, "they lack the skills to fill out a job application."

Those core skills are most successfully learned when taught in the context of a potential job, such as teaching math skills to adults who want to find a job in construction. That type of hands-on application tends to be more engaging than an abstract problem in a workbook, she noted. 

Where the jobs are

Even though high school dropouts are finding jobs, they may not be the type of roles leading to high pay and career opportunities. 

One-third of them are working in service industries like retail or restaurants, the type of jobs that have been the focus of the Fight for $15 labor movement. By comparison, only 8 percent of those with college degrees work in service businesses. 

High school dropouts are also more likely to be employed in construction and farming jobs than workers with higher levels of education. And on the flip side, they have the smallest share of workers in management or professional jobs of any type of worker, according to BLS data. 

Pay for high school dropouts

The median weekly pay for this group was $504 in 2016, the lowest of any group. By comparison, workers with a professional degree, such as a law degree or MBA, have the highest weekly wages, at $1,745. 

But wages for the lowest-earning workers are advancing quickly, thanks to minimum wage hikes in cities and states as well as pledges from corporations such as Amazon and Walmart to boost their base pay.