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New Grads and America's Ever Growing Would-be Labor Force

David Callahan

One fact about America's unemployment crisis that is easy to forget is that large numbers of new workers keep entering the labor force. Solving the jobs crisis means not just finding jobs for existing unemployed workers, but also for all the freshly minted workers who graduate from college and high school every year.

How many new workers are we talking about? A few million this spring alone. And they'll join the few million who graduated last year, with many of those people still looking for jobs. 

Let's take a closer look at the numbers, starting with college grads. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 1,781,000 students are graduating from 4-year colleges this spring. Around 900,000 or so students will also complete associate's degrees, with some planning on going on in college and others entering the labor force.

These college graduates will join an army of other recent college grads. Including this year's crop of grads, over 8 million young people have graduated from 4-year colleges since the spring of 2008 -- entering the worst labor market since the Great Depression.

Oh, and let's not forget all the other recipients of postsecondary degrees. Around 730,000 students are also finishing master's programs this spring, and are looking for jobs that reward their more extended (and expensive) investment in education. Alas, many will face stiff competition from the roughly 2.7 million young people who have received master's degrees since the spring of 2008.

Then there are all the new Ph.Ds jamming the more rarefied sectors of the labor market. About 77,000 doctorates will be granted this year -- on top of the 275,000 doctorates handed out since 2008. This at a time when universities everywhere, particularly public colleges, have had hiring freezes or are laying off faculty.

Meanwhile, just because the economy stinks, production of more degreed young people isn't slowing. Not in the least. Next spring, another 2.6 million young peope with college or advanced degrees will enter the labor force. When the recession first hit, many young people decided it was a great time to go back to school. Now many of them are graduating -- and the number of grads receiving master's and doctorates is projected to jump by 14,000 between this year and next.

All told, there are about 21 million people enrolled in postsecondary institutions right now. That's a lot of jobs that are going to be needed over the next few years.

And I haven't even mentioned the high school grads who aren't planning to go to college. Nearly 3 million teenagers will graduate from high school this month, and about 30 percent of them won't go on to college. Their prospects are especially bleak, as Tamara Draut points out.

The unending stampede of young people in America's labor force is all the more daunting to consider when we look at what's happening at the back end of the labor market -- namely, that more older workers feel they must keep working because they haven't saved enough for retirement.

Surveys of older workers in recent years have found that many are planning to delay their retirement. Other seniors end up reentering the labor market, often competing for lower wage jobs that younger workers traditionally have taken.

All told, this is a tough spring to be graduating from school. Here at Policyshop, we will be exploring just how tough things are for grads in a series of posts over the coming week. I'd say "enjoy," but it's really not that kind of series.