Taking the Plunge
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"I feel like now it's killing my spirit," she says.
It's also killing her wallet. Kit budgets her salary very carefully, but she has about $14,000 in student loans that she is determined to pay off on her own. Her mother has urged her to move back in with her to save money, but Kit says it's important to her to make it by herself, although she acknowledges raiding her mother's refrigerator occasionally to cut back on food costs. She also took a second job at Crate and Barrel for three months over the holidays to pay for new furniture, which meant leaving her day job at 5:30 to work from 6 p.m. to sometimes as late as 11 p.m. at her second one.
"I never realized how difficult it is to have two jobs, and I'm single," she says. "I work with one woman who's 34 with two kids working three jobs. I have a new respect for people with more than one job."
But Kit admits what bothers her the most is not her money problems but the emotional stress of a job she never thought she'd have to take for this long.
"There were times when I pulled into the parking garage and just started crying," she says. She would pull herself out of her depression by reminding herself that there were people who were completely unemployed and without any resources at all. And by admitting to herself that she was going to have to be a grown-up eventually.
"I'm realizing so many things," she says. "It's true when they say, 'Stay a kid for as long as you can.' At home, going to football games and parties, when my biggest problem was what was I going to wear the next day but you can't go home."
That's what Rob Gaddi and Saad Mahmoud keep reminding themselves. Anything is worth not going home. For Saad, that means sleeping at friends' houses because the garage apartment he's working on doesn't have a functioning AC unit yet. For Rob, that means taking on an extra research job at Rice and volunteer bartending at the Rice pub so he can be eligible for 50-cent beers.
"The beer is cheap, and it's somewhere that's not staring at the walls," he says.
Both grads cook at home to save money on food, although Saad jokes rice is cheap but it's the cost of the soy sauce that gets him. Rob prefers spaghetti. And although he would love to live closer to work, Rob wisely chose an apartment near U.S. 59 South and Buffalo Speedway. That was one of his many money-saving decisions.
"I rebelled against the cable man," says Rob. Then he admits, "But I splurged. I got the expensive rabbit ears."
While Rob spent his senior year agonizing over finding a job, his fellow Rice classmate Maryann Bylander didn't send out one résumé, proving that not every recent college graduate is worrying about how to make ends meet or how to find that perfect job.
"I didn't look for a job at all," says Maryann nonchalantly. "The fact that jobs are so hard to come by and I don't know what I really want to do had something to do with it."
The 22-year-old political science major had always had vague plans to apply to law school, and despite a surge in law school applications she was accepted at the University of Texas at Austin early in her senior year. But instead of feeling relief that her postgraduation plans were set, she instead felt tempted to try something completely different.
"There's so much emphasis on getting a job, getting on the fast track," says Maryann. "It's hard for me to envision myself getting a job that I know I'll want for the rest of my life right now."
She had spent part of her junior year studying in France and Switzerland, and she had always enjoyed learning languages and exploring other cultures. Before she even applied to law school she had discovered the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) on the Internet and had sent in an application. The 16-year-old program sends Americans to Japan to work for one year as assistant teachers in English language classes. To Maryann it sounded like an adventure.
"It was a pretty difficult application process," she remembers. In addition to a written application, she had an interview at the Houston office of the consulate-general of Japan. When she discovered she'd been accepted to teach at a school an hour south of Tokyo, she decided to go for it.
"There are no ties right now," she reasons. "There is never going to be another time like this. There's nothing holding you back."
Maryann leaves at the end of July. In Japan, she'll be paid the equivalent of about $30,000 for her year of work. Like most JET members, she speaks no Japanese at all, although she hopes to take an intensive class in the language before she goes. She acknowledges there will be culture shock, but she sounds like she's almost looking forward to it. As for when she gets back, Maryann says she thinks she'll start at UT law -- the school agreed to defer her acceptance for a year. Still, Maryann says that step in her life isn't definite. And she doesn't sound worried about that at all.
"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."
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.
Despite Rob's disappointing job search, he takes some pride in knowing his parents have finally agreed to change his old bedroom back home into something else, proving he really isn't going back.
"My family's been real supportive," says Rob, "once they realized there was no way in hell I was going to move back to New Jersey."
Rob and Saad sit in Rob's living room, surrounded by the memorabilia from Rob's job search. Despite the ironic quips and jokes, there's something about the two of them, and indeed about all of the graduates, that's endearing. After years of summer vacations and lives meted out in school years, they're finally in the adult world. And they're dealing with it.