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Rob Gaddi is a 22-year-old Rice University graduate with an electrical engineering degree. By all conventional wisdom, he should be spring-loaded for success. But right now he looks every bit an aging Willy Loman -- albeit it in a blue and gray tie-dyed shirt -- slumped in an easy chair in the middle of his apartment, surrounded by empty boxes left over from his recent move. For reasons that are not obvious, on the coffee table in front of him there is a roll of duct tape, a measuring tape and a container of ground cinnamon.
Rob's apartment seems desperately in need of some rearranging. So, Rob might argue, does his life.
"I got that clock from career services," he says, motioning to a sleek metal Danbury clock sitting on the windowsill. "For most rejections, and most rejections in a single letter. Boeing rejected me for six jobs in one letter." When he says this, there's a demented bit of pride in his voice.
Boeing rejected Rob for 18 jobs total. IBM, Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, Shell and BP also said no thanks. There are many others. A New Jersey native who attended Rice on scholarship, Rob was hoping for an engineering job in the $50,000 to $60,000 range after graduation. After nearly a year of searching, he finally got a position at Baylor College of Medicine as an engineering technician. He'll be making $22,000.
Rob seems to have a sense of humor about his situation -- anyone who keeps a collection of Far Side comics and a copy of Evil Dead 2 on his bookshelf probably would. And in the current job market, an appreciation of the absurd is sorely needed.
Despite recent predictions that the economy is slowly starting to turn around, college students who finished school this year are graduating into one of the worst job markets in two decades. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, corporations cut their hiring of new graduates by 36 percent between 2001 and 2002, and starting salaries -- especially those in technical fields -- have plummeted, too.
So instead of putting their feet on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, the kids in this well-educated group are doing things they never expected: getting by with two or three smaller jobs, debating perpetual studenthood by applying to graduate school, even thumbing their noses at the lousy job market and taking off to teach English in some country halfway around the globe. Some, like Rob's friend Saad Mahmoud, are technically homeless, trading manual-labor skills for rent-free living.
The 23-year-old graduated last year and was courted by a few companies, but he was suddenly dropped after the economy really began to nose-dive. Unwilling to return home to Nashville, which he saw as the final acceptance of defeat, he moved to New York City for a while to stay with friends, earning his keep by painting their apartment.
He eventually went back and got his master's at Rice, hoping it would help him find a job this year. But despite sending out approximately 45 résumés, including one to as far away as Ireland, he is unemployed and living in an acquaintance's garage apartment. In exchange for rent-free living, he's doing home repair projects around the property. For extra money he does some commercial contract work, like putting up drywall at construction sites.
"It really does feel impossible," says Saad, a tall, quiet young man who allows for long, thoughtful pauses between sentences. "It's depressing. I'm really not sure how I'm doing it. I guess I know I haven't gone home yet. That's the goal for me."
Near Rob's and Saad's feet is a small plastic model plane from Boeing, one of Rob's "lovely parting gifts," as he puts it, from companies that didn't hire him. Other gifts include free T-shirts, which Rob appreciates, since his clothing budget isn't much. Rob stares at the plane and deadpans, "I think Boeing is sending me rejection letters for things I might apply for in the future, just to make sure."
He then decides that the tiny blue-and-white jet, which came unassembled, might be worth putting together.
"This plane could fly around my room as a constant reminder," he announces, suddenly dropping his voice a notch or two so he can mimic a radio traffic controller.
"Negative, negative, we do not have employment at this time."
Just a few years ago, Rice students like Rob and Saad probably would have had their choice of plum positions. Current grads tell heady stories about job offers that went to kids who finished just a few years ago with a sense of disbelief, almost as if they were relating urban legends. Students just four or five years older than themselves were graduating in the boom-boom late '90s with salary offers in the $70,000 to $80,000 range. Dot-coms were promising top dollar and offices with foosball tables to make the offers even more tempting. English majors who once would have been taking $23,000 entry-level positions at a publishing house were scoring $60,000 consulting gigs -- and that didn't include the usual tidy signing bonus.
"In 1998, '99, 2000, it was almost as if you had to work to not get a job," says Cheryl Matherly, assistant dean of students at Rice, who says she and her staff still talk about the computer science major a few years back who scored a $100,000 job fresh out of school.