Taking the Plunge

Saad Mahmoud is a Rice engineering grad. Instead of fielding $60,000-a-year job offers, he's been trading manual-labor skills for rent-free living -- while waiting out one of the worst job markets in two decades.

But 1998 might as well have been 20 years ago. In the past two years the stock market took a dive, dot-coms evaporated, terrorists attacked the United States, and here in Houston traditional Rice recruiters such as Enron went bust. Even reports that the government would increase hiring after 9/11 turned out to be less than promising, says Matherly. The sour economic picture made itself clear in the number of potential employers who have visited Rice in recent years. In 2000, a prominent consulting firm hired 24 Rice graduates. The next year, the company didn't even show up on campus.

"Humanities and liberal arts grads have really been clobbered," says Matherly.

There are a few survivors. Some traditional oil and gas companies such as Shell and ExxonMobil are still hiring a few new recruits. There are also openings in the education field, especially for those who can teach math and science or are bilingual. But even graduates who may be qualified for available entry-level jobs are having to compete with experienced workers who were recently laid off.

Jobless after graduation, Resham Arora had to move back in with her parents.
Daniel Kramer
Jobless after graduation, Resham Arora had to move back in with her parents.
The first in his family to graduate from college, Ramiro Maldonado hopes his fluency in Spanish will help him find a job.
Daniel Kramer
The first in his family to graduate from college, Ramiro Maldonado hopes his fluency in Spanish will help him find a job.

"I think this is the worst year to graduate in 20 years," says David Small bluntly, and he should know. Small, assistant vice president for student services at the University of Houston, has been working with recent graduates for nearly a quarter of a decade.

"It hasn't been quite dismal as it is now," he says.

Small echoes Matherly's opinion on the winners and losers in the current economy, adding that he's also seen a decent number of jobs in finance still available. But 2003 graduates aren't fighting just the current market; they're up against baby boomers who aren't ready to retire -- the stagnant economy and loss of retirement funds in the stock market have pushed many middle-aged Americans to stay in the labor market longer than expected. Small says some are predicting that by the end of the decade there may actually be a labor shortage when many in that generation wrap up their careers.

But current grads can't wait a few years. They need jobs now. For them, Small and others like him suggest all the usual steps: networking, starting a search early, getting an internship while in school (although those positions are also hard to come by) and applying to entry-level jobs that may not be in their dream field.

"If they persist and are creative and can handle rejection, they can get job offers," says Small. "Our students are more pragmatic."

Matherly also adds that students need to realize that in their early twenties, it's okay if they don't get the perfect job straight out of school. She mentions a May 2003 New York Times op-ed piece by former secretary of labor Robert Reich, curtly titled "Get a Job."

"Many college graduates would do better to lower their sights in the short term and take a 'go-fer' job (as in 'go for coffee') in an industry or profession that interests them," wrote Reich. "Even if the industry doesn't pay much, it can provide a window on to that particular world of work." Reich also advised young graduates -- many of whom don't have families yet -- to venture off to a part of the country with low unemployment and explore something new.

Matherly says Reich hits on something crucial: the importance of those postgraduation years as a time for twentysomethings to find themselves. While the late-'90s economy made the job market a pretty place, it also threw a lot of young people into an almost quarter-life crisis -- they had high-paying, fast-paced jobs that they didn't truly enjoy, and they had no idea what they should really be doing.

"It was great money" a few years ago, "especially if you were coming out with an English degree," she says. "But it was making it almost impossible for students to really evaluate what they wanted. You knew their heart and soul was not really as a consultant. The salaries were so out of line, they really skewed the decision-making process."

Part of that soul-searching could come as part of a nontraditional postgraduate plan. Applications are up for programs like the Peace Corps. Teach for America, the AmeriCorps program that puts recent grads in tough inner-city and rural schools for two years, has seen its number of applicants quadruple in the past two years. And of course there's always graduate school. But Matherly and Small caution against more schooling unless the student is planning for a career in academia or will be studying in a field he or she is dead set on.

"The cost of graduate school is on the rise," says Small. "They're already in debt when they graduate, so to stay in school is not the best answer." And graduate schools often prefer students with some life experience, the experts say. In a best-case scenario, students may discover that once the job market picks up, they will find jobs with companies that will even help pay for graduate school, if it's still something they want to do.

But despite the bitter job market, Matherly and Small say they've been pleasantly surprised by how well many of their students are handling things. They've had some kids panic on them, but most who have walked into their offices are calm and even weirdly optimistic. Part of this may come from the fact that the adult world has not been that far away for many of them, even though they've been sheltered in school. For the great majority of their college careers, the economy has surged downward, and several students have watched a parent lose a job.

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