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.

"The plan is to do UT law, but my plans tend to change," she admits with a laugh.

Facing the future with the same amount of open-mindedness is Ramiro Maldonado, a 22-year-old Houston native who, when he graduated from Texas Southern University this year with a degree in construction technology, became the first member of his family to finish college.

"I've always enjoyed the outdoors, and I've always been interested in how buildings go up," says Ramiro, who as a little boy loved to sketch plans for cities. "It's always fascinated me."

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.

While in school he scored two all-important internships, one with a home builder and one with a commercial construction company. He hoped at the time that one of the internships would turn into a permanent position, but it didn't happen that way. Still, Ramiro isn't worried. He lived at home while attending college on several scholarships, so he won't face the awkward transition of having to move back into his parents' house. And he does have his eyes set on a possible job he discovered through TSU's career services office, even though it couldn't be further from his chosen field.

The job, working as a claims representative with the Social Security Administration, would be a good match for Ramiro because he has the advantage of speaking fluent Spanish, and there's a real need for bilingual representatives right now. Although it has nothing to do with construction, Ramiro is following the advice of the experts: When you're 22, almost any job can teach you something.

"Just because I take this job now, it doesn't mean I have to stay" forever, says Ramiro. "But right now I need a job." Although he doesn't have to worry about rent, he recently purchased a computer, already has a cell phone, and would like to help out with future family needs. A paycheck in any field would take care of those expenses.

Ramiro says he won't let a temporary shift in the job track keep him from his real goal: owning a construction company. It's something he knows he's going to accomplish, even if he has to work for the SSA for a little while.

"I want to be honest with you," he says. "Sometimes I get depressed. But that doesn't help you. The way I see it, if I get this job, the skills I learn from it, I'll apply them to my next job. I've had the goal [of owning my own company] since I started college. It's a dream that with God's help and my family's support will hopefully come true someday."


Sitting in the middle of his living room, Rob is not as quick to embrace Ramiro's outlook on life. When he and Saad are asked to ruminate over whether they'll have more opportunity to know themselves than the graduates a few years ago who were making $70,000 a year, Rob brushes off the question.

"You can't put philosophizing on your résumé," he says. "You can't eat it or live under it."

Says Saad of a friend of his who took a consulting job a few years ago: "He totally hated it. But…if I'd accepted one of those jobs I'd have experience."

Rob then jokes that if there's anyone out there making $70,000 who'd like to trade with Rob, he's all for it.

"If I don't like it, I could do it for a year and be $70,000 better for it," he laughs.

At the end of the summer, Saad's free living arrangement will be over, and he's not sure what he's going to do. He tried to get work as an electrician, but he'd have to become a licensed apprentice first. And the people he talked to told him that with his educational background, few would hire him. Because he's so overqualified, they know he'd take off as soon as the economy picks up again.

"I really have no idea what's going to happen," says Saad calmly. "I'm doing a fair amount of reading…I just don't want to move back home. I find I like living alone. I would rather enjoy being alone and make ends meet the best I can."

As for Rob, he spends his days at Baylor helping develop lab equipment that will be used to analyze individual neurons. Because his shift doesn't start until 10:30 a.m., he sleeps in. He likes not having to battle the morning rush hour to get to work. He works until 7 p.m., and on Tuesday nights he leaves work for his second job at a lab at Rice, which lasts until midnight. Then from there it's on to his volunteer shift at the bar.

Since he's just moved into his place, his first few days at work he had to buy his lunch at a nearby deli. But soon he'll eliminate that expense.

"I've got the cold cuts in the refrigerator," he says.

Because he and his friends are all pretty much in the same boat -- that is to say, they're all broke -- they trade books and DVDs to entertain themselves. Their choices seem fitting for this odd time. Saad recently borrowed Rob's copy of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, and Rob just snagged a copy of the black comedy Heathers, where two high schoolers spend their days offing the popular kids.

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