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August 1994, Vol. 117, No. 8
Young men and the transition to stable employment
Jacob Alex Klerman and Lynn A. Karoly
Although the vast majority of our young people leave high school to go directly to work, we typically offer them little or no assistance in this transition . . . The result is that typical high school graduates mill about in the labor markets, moving from one dead-end job to another until the age of 23 or 24.
-- Report by the Commission on
the Skills of the American Workforce
entitled America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages, 1990, p. 46
One frequently heard criticism of the U.S. education system is that it fails to provide a smooth transition for the average student who proceeds to the labor market directly after graduating from high school. Such young people are often characterized as facing a "period of floundering"—from high school graduation through their mid-20's—during which they move into and out of the labor force, holding numerous jobs, none for very long, and being unemployed in between. Instead of settling into longer term jobs, these youth are portrayed as "milling about" or "churning" with no clear progression toward any career.1
This article explores whether the preceding characterization of the transition from school to work is accurate for the bulk of the U.S. youth. We use data on young men from national Longitudinal Survey of Youth to estimate the distribution of their ages at entrance to jobs lasting various lengths of time—specifically, 1, 2, and 3 years. We view the time taken to reach a job with a 1-, 2-, or 3-year tenure as the period of "settling down." Although we do not examine the characteristics of these jobs (for example, the wages they pay or their "quality"), our approach offers a useful way to characterize the amount of "milling about" in the labor market by U.S. youth.
Consistent with much of the previous literature on the subject, we find that young U.S. males hold a large number of jobs in their first few years in the labor market (even after excluding jobs held prior to leaving full-time schooling). Nevertheless, our dynamic perspective provides little support for the conventional wisdom that the typical male high school graduate does not settle until his mid-20's. For the youth cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey, the median, male high school graduate secured a job that would last more than a year shortly after his 19th birthday, a job that would last more that 2 years shortly after his 20th birthday, and a job that would last longer than 3 years while he was 22.
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1 See, for example, Paul Osterman, Getting Started: The Youth Labor Market (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1980); Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages (Rochester, NY, National Center on Education and the Economy, 1990); James E. Rosenbaum, Takehiko Karia, Rick Settersen, and Tony Maier, "Market and Network Theories of the Transition from High School to Work: their Application to Industrial Societies," Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 16, 1990, pp. 263-99; Wilfred Prewo, "Sorcery of Apprenticeship," The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12, 1993, p. A14; and Paul Osterman and Maria Iannozzi, "Youth Apprenticeships and School-to-Work Transitions: Current Knowledge and Legislative Strategy," Working Paper No. 14 (Philadelphia, national Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce, 1993)
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