With unem­ploy­ment soaring, Andy Sum, director of North­eastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies, is in high demand by the media. The center ana­lyzes trends in state and national labor mar­kets, and work­force devel­op­ment. Pro­fessor Sum shares his thoughts about the job out­look and dis­cusses a new, dis­turbing report that shows teens to be drop­ping out of high school at higher rates.

Many say that the class of 2009 is entering one of the worst job mar­kets in the last 50 years. Is this true?

Yes, the cur­rent eco­nomic reces­sion has gen­er­ated a larger increase in the overall unem­ploy­ment rate than in any of the pre­ceding 10 reces­sions since the end of World War II. Since the begin­ning of the reces­sion in December 2007, the unem­ploy­ment rate has jumped by more than 4 per­cent, to 8.9 per­cent in April 2009, the highest unem­ploy­ment rate in the past 26 years.

Which indus­tries have been the hardest hit by this eco­nomic downturn?

Nearly all major private-​​sector indus­tries, with the excep­tion of util­i­ties, health care, edu­ca­tion, and social ser­vices, have expe­ri­enced sub­stan­tive pay­roll job losses. The indus­tries with the largest rel­a­tive job losses have been con­struc­tion, man­u­fac­turing, trans­porta­tion and ware­housing, retail trade, and busi­ness ser­vices, espe­cially tem­po­rary help and labor leasing.

Do you see things improving over the next year or two, or will this take more time to turn around?

National eco­nomic fore­casters, including the Fed­eral Reserve Bank and most pri­vate fore­casting firms, have pro­jected that the reces­sion will come to an end in the late fall of this year. How­ever, the average eco­nomic pro­jec­tion for 2010 is a very low growth rate in the nation’s output of only 1.4 per­cent, which is not large enough to gen­erate any increase in employ­ment next year.

There is another dis­turbing trend that you’ve been tracking. According to a new Center for Labor Market Studies report, an increasing high-​​school dropout rate in the United States is causing us to fall behind other devel­oped nations in terms of edu­ca­tion. How did this happen?

The United States was a world leader in its high-​​school grad­u­a­tion rate until the 1980s, when we began to lose ground to many nations in Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Aus­tralia and New Zealand. Lack of policy atten­tion and poor national mea­sures of grad­u­a­tion rates were partly respon­sible for our lack of progress.

What are the long-​​term costs of not having a high-​​school diploma?

For indi­vid­uals, they include lower employ­ment over their working lives, con­sid­er­ably lower annual earn­ings, less access to employee ben­e­fits, including health insur­ance and pen­sion cov­erage, a much higher inci­dence of poverty and lower wealth. For society, losses include less real output, greater mar­ital insta­bility, lower fed­eral, state, and local tax receipts, and higher rates of incar­cer­a­tion in jails and prisons.

Which states have been hardest hit by the dropout problem?

The dropout problem is fairly wide­spread in large cities and some rural areas. In our study of 12 large states in the United States, between 19 and 22 per­cent of 16– to 24-​​year-​​olds in Georgia, Florida, Texas and North Car­olina did not have a reg­ular high-​​school diploma.

What changes need to be made to curb this trend? How will we re-​​enroll and re-​​engage these former students?

We need to focus on expanding dropout pre­ven­tion and re-​​enrollment strate­gies aimed at bringing existing dropouts into alter­na­tive high school set­tings to earn their diplomas and gain access to employ­ment, job training and men­toring ser­vices. Some school dis­tricts, including Philadel­phia, have opened “re-​​enrollment cen­ters” that have employed spe­cial­ized sup­port staff to help dropouts tran­si­tion back into tra­di­tional high schools, alter­na­tive high schools, and GED programs.

Even in Mass­a­chu­setts, which has one of the highest con­cen­tra­tions of col­lege grad­u­ates, 60 per­cent of all adults don’t have bachelor’s degrees. Is there room in our society for people without a col­lege degree to succeed?

Male high-​​school grad­u­ates [without a col­lege degree] have expe­ri­enced earn­ings losses due to the con­tinued decline of well-​​paid man­u­fac­turing jobs and blue-​​collar posi­tions in other indus­tries, and the steep drops in the number of union­ized jobs. High-​​school grad­u­ates, how­ever, do ben­efit from strong cumu­la­tive work expe­ri­ence, a solid base of lit­eracy and math skills, and access to formal training and appren­tice­ship training at the workplace.