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.

"They're chalking this up to experience," says Matherly. "It's giving them a sense of realism."

One afternoon in 1998, while sitting in an economics class during her senior year of high school, Resham Arora's teacher announced to the class that the economy had never been better.

Rice graduate Rob Gaddi finally got a job at Baylor after a year of searching -- paying almost $30,000 less than he was expecting.
Daniel Kramer
Rice graduate Rob Gaddi finally got a job at Baylor after a year of searching -- paying almost $30,000 less than he was expecting.
UH's David Small says graduates must lower expectations in a rough job market.
Daniel Kramer
UH's David Small says graduates must lower expectations in a rough job market.

"Then he said, 'Understand that by the time you graduate from college we'll be well into a recession,' " remembers the 23-year-old from Missouri City. "I'm kind of a pessimistic person, so I thought, 'He's probably right.' "

But as negative as Resham can be, even she didn't expect to have such a hard time finding work. A marketing major at the University of Houston, Resham secured two internships during her college career, one at the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston and one at a communications firm. She also joined two associations for marketing professionals to help her network. While she wished her 2.95 GPA had been higher, the grades for the courses she took in her major were solid, and she hoped recruiters would notice that.

But at her first job fair at school, as she made her way from booth to booth dropping off résumés, she noticed all anyone wanted was someone with experience in finance, a field Resham had consciously shunned.

"I'm afraid of being bored," says the petite Resham, sipping a glass of water at the Montrose coffeehouse Brasil. "Marketing seemed like it would have a creative side to it."

But as Resham quickly learned, when companies are cutting back, the last thing they want to spend money on is promotional material.

She also realized she had waited until her spring semester to start looking for a job -- something she now regrets. Although she spent much of her last semester taking advantage of the career services office at UH by participating in mock interviews and posting her résumé on the Web, she discovered the few jobs she might have been qualified for were filled.

"My plan was to start looking in the fall, but looking for a job is almost like a class in itself," says Resham, who in addition to her coursework had a part-time job at Victoria's Secret.

In April, Resham finally heard back from a Dallas-based division of Rubbermaid that was interested in hiring her for a sales position. Resham was unsure about sales; she didn't know if her low-key personality would fit the job description. But she was willing to try. After surviving the first two rounds of interviews, she was flown out to Dallas and participated in what she describes as "an interview for 24 hours," which she found exhausting. She didn't make the final cut.

"I know I would have hated the job, but I would have taken it," she admits. Resham says because her parents paid for her college, she feels even more obligated to find a good job, especially since she's had to leave the dorms and move back in with her folks in the suburbs. She's home alone during the day. Her mother works for Bechtel, and her father, an engineer, recently left retirement to go back to work because the family needed his income.

"It's like being in high school again," she says. While she loves her parents, she admits, "I feel suffocated in the suburbs. I feel like I have to live under my parents' rules." She says her dream is to move to Austin and be financially secure, which for her means a job with a starting salary of around $30,000. She's continuing to apply for every job she can find, and recently signed up with a temp agency. But she's resisting the urge to go back to a retail job like the one she had during college.

"Retail is just miserable," she says. "That's what kept me in school: that I don't want to do that again."

For Kit Lewis, a 2002 University of Houston graduate, what kept her in school was the hope that she might have a job she loved one day, a job suited to her bubbly, outgoing personality. The 25-year-old Houston native was a kinesiology major who loved analyzing Hakeem Olajuwon's Dream Shake in her biomechanics class. When an aptitude test told her she had the perfect personality for sales, she became determined to find a job in pharmaceutical or medical supply sales.

"I had a brown suit and a black suit -- the first interview suit and the second interview suit," she laughs. "I wore my hair back, not too much perfume, I had my mother look me over." Not the type to get nervous, the gregarious Kit remained confident through each of the roughly 15 interviews she went out on. She got no offers.

Determined to start out independent, and also at the urging of her grandmother, who had paid for her schooling, Kit decided to take any job she could find. A $12-an-hour file clerk job at Burr Wolff, a tax company, eventually turned into a full-time job. After a promotion to a salaried position, she now makes in the mid-$20,000s.

While she's grateful to have the job and does her best at it, she admits, "it goes completely against my personality type. It's paper- and pencil-pushing; I'm sitting in a cube for eight hours a day." With a sales job, she could be out and moving, always on the go and meeting people.

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