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College Grads Struggle To Find Jobs In Chosen Fields

Many Are Unemployed Or Mal-Employed


March 23, 2011

Since he got his bachelor's degree last May, Kirk Devezin II has worked a little more than six months, and free-lanced. He has never made more than the $10.36 an hour he earned as a barista at Starbucks while he was a student at Eastern Connecticut State University.

He's interviewed for one job related to his communications major as a content developer for TicketNetwork and one career-track job as a manager-in-training at Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

"I apply to jobs constantly, constantly, constantly," he said. "Am I supposed to just join the military because that's the only option that's left? It's just more and more frustrating every day."

Lately, all the interviews have been for barista and cook jobs, and one at a carwash where he's competing for jobs with people who didn't go to college at all, or who didn't graduate.

When he applied for jobs two weeks ago at Dunkin' Donuts and a coffeeshop, he left his college degree off the application, sensing the employers don't want to hire him because he's overqualified. "They don't think I will stay," he said.

"It just seems like it was just a big waste of time," said Devezin, 24, who lives with his girlfriend, who got a good job at the University of Connecticut after graduation. "And I'm $20,000 in debt."

The numbers show that he's wrong earning a college degree is still the best way to avoid unemployment. But the number of recent college grads who can't find work, or who can find only part-time retail or restaurant jobs that don't require an education, grew by more than 70 percent over the last two years.

That puts stress on the graduates, who often can't keep up with student loan payments when they're making $8 or $10 an hour, and crowds out other young workers with less education.

Last year, high school graduates 20 to 24 had a 29 percent unemployment rate. College dropouts 20 to 24 had a 14 percent unemployment rate. And college graduates in that age group had a 9.4 percent jobless rate, a little worse than the year before, when unemployment for recent graduates really shot up.

Before the recession, it was 5.5 percent for young college grads.

Now, the lack of job growth in professional fields is creating a vicious cycle for young adults, said Andrew Sum, director of the center for labor market studies at Northeastern University.

"Every job they take, they take away from the group beneath them," he said. "It's a depression for young people, it's the only way to describe it."

'So Far In Debt'

While much attention has been paid to the jobless rate among former construction workers, black and Hispanic people and people with less education and they are hardest hit the pain of the slow recovery is also touching young people who aren't in those categories.

Americans between 20 and 24 have more than double the unemployment rate of those 45 to 65, and the unemployment rate remains high across the board. Connecticut's labor department is scheduled to issue its monthly employment report Thursday.

College dropout Hannah Elflein, 21, has worked more recently than Devezin she had a full-time nanny job from November 2010 until two weeks ago. Elflein and her boyfriend rent an apartment in Hartford. Her boyfriend, a high-school dropout, hasn't worked since the summer, when he worked on a horse farm.

Because Elflein worked in someone's home, she doesn't qualify for even the $100 a week unemployment Devezin gets. She made $450 a week caring for four boys, cooking and cleaning, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week. The family just moved from West Hartford to the shoreline.

"I have enough to get through a month, but that's about it," she said, and her mother in Windsor can't really help much, with two kids still at home. Elflein completed two years at St. Joseph College in West Hartford while working about 20 hours a week in retail, and has taken some dental hygienist courses at a community college since then. She plans to go back to school, either to become a dental hygienist or a teacher.

"I'm already so far in debt, I just want to start paying out of pocket with scholarships and grants," she said. Her loans are nearly $30,000, and when she's paying on them, it's $200 a month.

In just one week of unemployment, Elflein applied to 10 jobs in stores and in restaurants.

"It's hard to find a job without experience," she said. "Even being a waitress, you need to have experience in a restaurant."

It's particularly hard for young black college graduates, especially black men. More than 25 percent of black men younger than 24 with college degrees were unemployed last year, about the same rate as young black men who were college dropouts, and worse than it was for black male high school graduates before the recession.

It's harder for blacks to find jobs for several reasons their parents are less likely to have a network in corporations that are hiring, there is still racial discrimination, and black students often go to less selective colleges and take longer to get through school, said Christian Weller, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, and professor of public policy at University of Massachusetts-Boston.

"Employers may interpret that this person is not as focused, not as smart," Weller said. "Employers, especially in the labor market we're in now, will use college reputation as a screening device."

Weller doesn't think that the competition from 2011 grads in a few months will make it worse for underemployed or unemployed 2009 and 2010 graduates, but advised those young people to do volunteer work, like after-school tutoring. "That strengthens your marketability," he said.

Under Strain

Nearly 16 percent of recent college graduates who are working are working part time, the highest rate since the recession started.

But even those working full time are often in jobs that don't fit their education, said Northeast University's Andrew Sum. According to his analysis of 2010 data, just 64 percent of those younger than 25 with bachelor's degrees who had found work had professional jobs, and blacks and Hispanic graduates had lower rates still.

How bad is it? He said more young college graduates were working as waiters, waitresses and bartenders than were working as engineers.

Among those who were "mal-employed," as Sum calls it, the median weekly earnings were $400.

Devezin has lots of friends who are struggling to get established, in that "mal-employed" group. One friend, also a communications major from ECSU, is working part time delivering pizzas, and is living with four roommates.

"My friend Adrienne Roach, she passed the bar, she can't even get a legal secretary job," Devezin said.

Roach, 25, is working full time as a secretary at a property management company, a job she found through a temporary agency. Roach went to law school at Quinnipiac University the fall after she graduated from the University of Connecticut with a political science degree.

In hindsight, Roach wishes she had applied for a summer internship at a law firm after her second year, instead of going to study comparative law in Ireland. She worked in public interest law the first summer, with domestic violence victims, and she was an intern during her last semester in family court, putting Spanish skills to good use interviewing and advising clients.

She also wishes she had taken the Connecticut bar; she took only the New Jersey exam. Even with the out-of-state credentials, she was offered a one-year temporary assistant clerk job in New Haven that she turned down in August. It would have paid $18.50 an hour with no benefits, and she expected to find something better. She said she needs to make more money than that because she has more than $200,000 in student loans from law school and many thousands in credit card debt from charging living expenses while she was studying for the bar and before she got steady work.

Instead, she's making less in the temp job she started in November and that lasts through May. From September to December, she also worked as a retail associate at the mall, and she baby-sat. She still baby-sits. "In December, I worked about 65 hours a week."

Roach was supposed to have her first interview this week for one of the dozens of federal government attorney posts she applied for as an Air Force lawyer, which would require enlisting. But it was canceled because of budget cuts. She is in the pool for October's applications. If she gets one of those jobs and stays with the federal government for 10 years, whatever student loans remained at the end of that time would be forgiven. For now, the loans are in forbearance, except for one that costs $150 a month. Since she's living with her parents in Glastonbury rent free, she's able to dedicate $1,500 a month towards her credit card debt.

She says she's lucky her parents could take her in. But, she added, her voice dropping and face reddening, "It also feels a little pathetic living at home with your parents at 25."

The emotional toll for young people who are unemployed and underemployed may be less than that of older people whose children ask them when they'll get a job, or who lose a home they'd paid for for years. But it's real.

The craigslist ad Devezin wrote shows some of the strain: "Please I really need a job. I am a fast learner, highly adaptable and really sick of being out of work. Any odd jobs, temporary positions whatever you have, I will do. I have my own reliable transportation and am willing to travel and dedicate myself to any position. Thank you for your time and I hope to hear from you soon."

He worries he'll be behind for years because of his bad luck, graduating when unemployment was so high. Some studies show it takes new college grads six years to catch up in salary; others say it takes decades.

"Once I graduated from college, my plan was to get a house in five years. That's not going to happen," he said. "I feel like I'm just digging myself a hole. I don't know if I'll be able to get out of it by the time I'm 35."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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