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A generation in free fall, Part 2 | Young people with little education face steep climbs

The Kansas City Star

Among the sons and daughters of the suburbs and the country club set, the recession turned good times to bad.

Their less accomplished peers, who didn’t make it through college or who never even made it to campus, have seen dismal prospects go from bad to awful.

These are the workers for whom the misery of the recession comes in torrents.

To Zachary Brame, it’s a yet-validated hope that a few weeks studying computer gets somebody to please, please, please call him back.

To Schakia Odums, it means taking refuge in uniform, aiming to get from the U.S. Army what the U.S. economy stubbornly refused to surrender.

And for Thadius Hughes, the long road to steady employment or anything approaching a career has been turned into a nearly vertical uphill climb.

In better times “they’d get the worst jobs,” said John Hornbeck of Episcopal Community Services in Kansas City. “Now the barrier is just a flat-out lack of jobs, period.”

Certainly millions of the young and lightly educated find ways to make a living at the menial end of the job market. But the struggles of those who can’t get work pose an extra burden for the rest of us — in the form of fewer people paying taxes, more needing government handouts and, perhaps, a threat of growing crime.

“These people run through their unemployment. … Then some of them get into legal trouble,” said Christopher Jencks, who studies poverty issues at Harvard University. “Some end up stealing stuff, overdose on drugs. All kinds of bad stuff.

“Society picks up not all of the broken glass, but some of it. And some of it gets stuck in our feet. We share the cost with the victims.”

At the bottom of the recession in 2009, unemployment swelled to about 10 percent. But for blue-collar folks, the rate was closer to 17 percent.

For a less definable class of young people who merely aspire to blue-collar work, the buzz-kill economy looks especially bleak.

This group lacks both formal training and the so-called soft skills — things like the ability to look a boss in the eye or understand that they should show up at 8:50 for a job that starts at 9 a.m., not 9ish.

They make up a disproportionate number of the 6.8 million Americans who aren’t just unemployed but who’ve been on the hunt for work for a year or longer. The previous high for the long-term unemployed, since the number was first tracked in 1948, was 3 million during the dreary days of the early 1980s.

“The old manufacturing economy honed physical skills such as lifting and manual dexterity,” wrote Richard Florida in “The Great Reset.”

“But two sets of skills matter more now: analytical skills … and social intelligence skills.”

The long-term jobless rate ignores those who’ve taken unending job rejections as a sign to simply to stop asking.

“We hear they just need to pick themselves up and get a job,” said Dennis Chapman, the development director at City Union Mission in Kansas City. “That’s easier said than done.”

Cost of joblessness

One study in Missouri found that each high school dropout costs the state $4,000 a year in lost taxes and higher Medicaid and prison costs. Another estimated that the U.S. economy would miss out on $335 billion in lifetime earnings compared with what it would reap had the high school dropouts of 2009 earned their diplomas.

Jencks, the Harvard poverty scholar, is quick to point out that experts have yet to find a consensus on whether rising joblessness cranks up crime rates. For the most accurately tracked crimes like murder, the correlation is weak. Lesser crimes are tracked less closely, but as Jencks observes, “If you look at people in trouble with the law, an awful lot of them are out of work.”

More critically, Jencks said, is that those at the bottom rungs in an extended recession may be so cut off from a work-a-day existence that they won’t bounce back even when the job market turns around.

Statistics show they tend to delay marriage but not children. So this downturn might amp up the number of single moms who, on average, are more likely to lean on their families and the government to make the rent and stock the pantry.

At a key time in their lives, these would-be workers aren’t developing work habits. And they’re not making the connections to the mainstream of society they’ll need to achieve independence. They risk, Jencks said, slipping into a permanent situation that doesn’t fit with any American sense of success.

“After having been rejected 25 times, it gets hard to make the 26th call,” he said. “They’re the people who would have got factory jobs years ago. But they may be in danger of falling out of touch with the rest of us.”

‘Waiting and hoping’

Zachary Brame sheepishly grins when asked what he does with his time. Spends it on the computer. Playing games or studying Japanese to better appreciate Japanese animation. In his parents’ basement.

“It’s such a cliche,” he said.

It’s not where he wants to be or where he plans to be. But the path to escape, to independence, hasn’t shown up yet.

He had decent high school grades and graduated from Sumner Academy in Kansas City, Kan., in 2007. Like so many teenage boys of his generation, he has always been game for computer and video games: first-person shooter games, online fantasy stuff like World of Warcraft, Wii.

That took him to Tempe, Ariz., and the University of Advancing Technology to learn how to create games. He did well on general education classes and the beginner courses on fashioning virtual environments.

Then the economy nose-dived, and he calculated his prospects of actually making a salary that could handle the roughly $60,000 in debt he’d have upon graduation. Suddenly, the math didn’t work.

“As the money was going through my hands,” said the 22-year-old Brame, “it was getting more upsetting.”

He returned to Kansas City, Kan., in spring 2008. He worked with his carpenter father framing houses and then laboring in a warehouse. But the work was spotty and not something he could see himself doing for months, much less years.

Brame found he could go to Kansas City Kansas Community College studying the trumpet — something he’d excelled at in high school — on a scholarship. He stuck with that for two semesters, but his heart was never in it.

So he was back pounding the streets. This summer he landed in a monthlong course to certify himself as a computer technician — picking up geeky know-how for plugging in motherboards and keyboarding around viruses.

This is a guy habitually without any cash, dependent on a free bus pass, who had to wait weeks to save up money for the test that would vouch for his computer bona fides. His subsequent certification, he hopes, might mean a steady paycheck.

“It’s just terrible waiting and hoping all the time. It gets old.”

Worst at the bottom

As the executive director of Workforce Partnership — a collection of one-stop career centers in Johnson, Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties — Scott Anglemyer sees the frustration.

It’s worst, he says, for those at the bottom.

Think of a McDonald’s. We picture it as the place for people in their teens and early 20s to get a taste of the workplace. Today, though, those jobs increasingly are filled by folks with graying hair.

The entry-level landscape would be tough for those at the bottom “no matter what,” Anglemyer said. “Now it’s several orders of magnitude harder.”

Keep in mind that these young folks often were raised by parents or others looking after them who were employed only on the margins of society, if at all. They frequently shifted from one school to the next, passed from mother to uncle to grandmother.

They look for work, not sure where they might sleep tonight. They know their relatives can’t just spring for dinner or a clean shirt.

That makes them all the less prepared to field a phone call from a prospective boss, to scrounge up clean clothes for an interview, to navigate Kansas City’s thinly deployed public transit to get to a job site.

Anglemyer said that a few years ago employers would say, “Just send us a warm body.”

“We don’t have anybody asking for warm bodies anymore.”

Jobs in the military

Schakia Odums was always a decent student, pulling down mostly B’s. She liked math and had a good enough ear for music to excel at the double bass.

As she neared graduation from Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts in Kansas City in spring 2009, she pictured herself going to college, hoping to secure an accounting degree from Grambling State University or the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

But her family couldn’t get the money together. Her efforts at nailing down a scholarship — her 16 on the ACT would make acceptance to many colleges iffy — produced nothing.

So she went to Louisiana, where she’d spent her grade school years, to live with her father and work for several months carting food orders to cars at a Sonic franchise.

Then she returned to Kansas City to be with her mother and spent four months working at a KFC restaurant. But she felt as if she was being asked to do too many things and left.

She launched a frustrating search for some other way to make a living in telemarketing or “customer service.” She was told again and again she didn’t have experience.

So in September she went to see a military recruiter. Now she’s excited about joining the Army and about the promise it offers her of training as a dental hygienist:

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a dentist.”

Her entry into the Army is being delayed until she can pay off $380 in court fees from a car accident — money she’s scrounging from her father and unemployment checks.

“I’m excited. It’ll be something different.”

The idea of combat “doesn’t bother me as much as it might bother someone else. … Anything that takes my mind off things will be good.”

After all, she has spent the last few months at a homeless shelter and looking for some kind of work.

“Anything,” she said, “to take my mind off what I’ve had going on here.”

Still, the Army was never something she’d dreamed of.

“But this is what I’ve got,” she said. “I’m going to make something out of it.”

Too far behind

The demand for workers with minimal education and skills has been steadily dropping at least since the 1970s, as the U.S. economy has slowly shed its manufacturing jobs.

“It used to be that the high school degree was your ticket to a manual job, a semiskilled job that paid really well and bought you and your dependents a middle-class existence,” said Joel Devine, a Tulane University sociologist. “Not anymore.”

In a good economy, said career marketplace director Benita Ugoline at the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, “people with spotty work histories or little education and little skill development” work for janitorial services, hotel housekeeping, temporary security jobs.

But she said even those jobs will stay beyond the reach of people who are shut out of the job market now if they can’t improve themselves.

The jobless rate for people without high school diplomas or their equivalent is 50 percent higher than those with diplomas, three times that of college graduates. For African-Americans without high school diplomas, one in five couldn’t find any work last year.

If you don’t have a general equivalency diploma, Ugoline said, you’ll be ignored by employers now and for years to come.

It’s not just the certificate but the skills it represents. Somebody who can’t get online, can’t submit an electronic resume that was put together and stored on a memory stick — is just too far behind.

And if this recession leaves a young man or woman with a big gap in work history, that will last into a rebounded economy. She says people need to get that GED, or vocational training, both to boost their skills and to show employers they didn’t just let the years pass without accomplishing anything.

“They assume you are not a quality worker, which may or may not be true,” Ugoline said. “You need to have something to show them.”

‘Messed up my life’

No need to point out a short lifetime’s worth of mistakes to 21-year-old Thadius Hughes. He’ll spell them out for you. He has three children, an education that stopped in the 10th grade and perhaps three weeks of work in the last three years.

Growing up with his mom and a stepdad in a house where the number of kids regularly outpaced paychecks, he was weaned on tight times. Grade school went well enough, but at Westport Middle School and at high school in Raytown he just couldn’t hack it.

“There’s always somebody acting up, and I just couldn’t handle the distractions.”

Struggling in high school, he ultimately left over a dispute involving his baggy pants.

That left him passing the days with other idle boys and young men.

He tagged along with older guys, breaking into houses and stealing cars — not so much to get some cash but in search of something to do.

“I didn’t realize what it meant, that it mattered,” Hughes said. “After a while I messed up my life. When they say it catches up with you, it really does.”

Now he’s on probation after a 2008 arrest on a cocaine charge and amid an achingly slow effort to get his act together. Money is tight to nonexistent. He’s eager for the $50 a month and a bus pass he can score from a social service agency as an incentive to study for his GED. He had to borrow $40 to enroll in a course at Kansas City Kansas Community College.

There is much to overcome. He has had jobs over the years. One involved loading trucks and operating a forklift. He left that because he knew that he wasn’t pleasing the bosses and that his days were numbered anyway. He lost one cook’s job over what he says was a false accusation by a co-worker. At a job in a nursing home’s kitchen, he got tossed when another worker took offense at a conversation she overheard.

Meanwhile, he is the father of three children, ages 8 months to 3 years, with three different mothers. Hughes said he’d like to pitch in on the costs of raising them, but he’s got no cash to spread around.

His world is one of mostly inner-city horizons. He has never seen an ocean or a snow-capped mountain. Never traveled farther from Kansas City than Arkansas. (“I like to travel. It’s good to get away from everything.”)

Hughes talks, like millions of other young men, about “doing something with my music,” by which he means rapping. Failing that, he’d like to own a warehouse. And failing that, he thinks could train to become a car mechanic and open his own little business.

Yet even the most modest of dreams are deep into a future that looks fuzzy.

After leaving his mother’s home and “living here and there, kind of on the streets,” he has moved in with his truck-driving father.

That hunt for work still proves maddening. Part comes from a hollowed-out job market. Part from his lack of credentials. And part, he says, is that people “just see the stereotype.”

He’s tall, he wears his hair in dreadlocks, and he’s still partial to baggy jeans. He’s also got an affable smile that shows off some gold teeth. His inflection is more an echo of the streets than the guy reading the evening news.

“I’ve gotten to the interview,” he said, “and then it falls apart.”

The recession has made finding work especially tough for people like …

To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send e-mail to To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send e-mail to

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