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College Graduates Desperate for Jobs in Sinking Economy

Mills College Weekly

As a retail clerk in the upscale clothing and home decor store Anthropologie on Fourth Street in Berkeley, Jessica Yarris has her hands full picking up rejected garments and fetching new colors and sizes in the bustling fitting room. Her customers appear uniformly demanding and impatient, but Jessica’s manner is friendly and professional. Wearing a chic, form-fitting outfit that could be off the Anthropologie rack, she’s also dressed for success. It’s just not the kind of success she and her parents had in mind after four years and a B.A. in Multi-Media Art & Design from the University of Oregon.

“It was either stay in Oregon and fight over jobs at Target or coffee places or come back to the Bay Area to look for what I really want.” That would be an entry level position at Pixar or any size graphics design company, explains Yarris, who’s been searching for such a position since returning home in June.

The problem, according to Kate Dey of the Mills College Career Center, is that new college graduates like Yarris are competing against people laid off in the dot com bust who, in order to remain in the San Francisco Bay Area, are willing to undersell their skills. Yarris says that the jobs she sees listed in her field all require at least some years of experience.

Yarris’ circumstances reflect a weak job market that is now only slightly better than at its worst point, reached in mid-2003. The June 2004 unemployment statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor for applicants with a B.A. or above could be considered low at three percent when compared to a national overall rate for the month of September of 5.4 percent. But this three percent rate is almost twice that of the same demographic recorded in June, 2000.

After four years in college and, for most, solid years of schooling before that, new holders of bachelor’s degrees are facing tough choices and far less certainty than they are accustomed to having in their lives.

The picture isn’t necessarily brighter for applicants with graduate degrees. Mills alumna Sarah Storey, who received her M.A. in June of this year in Early Childhood Education, says, “I’m lucky that I can live with my parents while I search for something where I can use my masters, but the grace period for my student loans is up in November and that puts even more pressure on me.”

While many jobless graduates with a B.A. have elected to pursue higher degrees, this may not be the most cost-effective course, according to former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. In a May, 2003 New York Times column, Reich wrote, “The market value of advanced degrees is unlikely to rise enough to make the investment worth it.”

Instead Reich recommends recent graduates take a “go for” job (as in “go for coffee”) if they can find one in the industry they’re interested in, so they can “get a window on that world of work.” If that doesn’t pan out and you can afford it, Reich recommends a six month internship or a stint volunteering for a worthy cause.

Dey concurs with Reich’s point that an advanced degree is not the answer for all job seekers, but she says for certain positions and professions, it can be essential; the important thing, she emphasizes, is to know the expected qualifications for positions in your field.

Dey also points to non-traditional, entry level jobs for women that should not be overlooked, for example, the FBI. According to its Human Resources head, Martin Mijowski, the Bureau’s Northern California office is looking for all kinds of graduates with bachelor’s degrees, including political science, area studies (from the Middle East and Eastern Europe to Latin America), modern languages, computers, economics, and the natural sciences. Available entry level jobs range from special agents to analysts and administrative support positions. Mijowski points out that women now make up only 18 percent of FBI special agents, and the agency is very eager to increase the number of women and minority employees in their ranks.

To Mills students he says, “Many female students still often limit their thinking to traditional careers like teaching but we’re looking for young women who can think on their feet and want to help defend their country; to those candidates we’re offering career positions.”

For the moment, Storey is focusing full time on her search for a position in child advocacy, a process that she describes as a “frustrating roller coaster.” The process is made worse she says, by the number of employers who make simple courtesies like call backs and e-mail responses the exception, not the rule. Storey says, “I got an interview at one place and I was one of two finalists; I thought it went well but then I didn’t hear a word from them for 25 days.” After calling several times, she was finally told she did not get the position. As the deadline for the start of her student loan payments approaches, Storey says she’s reluctantly considering going back to a lower level childcare job she held in the past.

This is exactly the kind of thing that job applicants should not take personally, says Dey. “Hard as it is,” she adds, “rejection and an unfortunate decline in courtesy are just signs of the times we’re in.” She urges applicants to try and shake off such an experience, then get up and do it all over again. Dey underscores the need for a strong personal support system for what she acknowledges is now a more challenging process than has been the case in past years. But this experienced career counselor has some tough talk for job seekers. “If you’re looking for a job, you can no longer sit at home and limit your search to going online to Craig’s List or” Instead, she recommends, current students and graduates, whether doing temporary work or not, should get to work networking by joining professional organizations, going to conferences and making personal connections in their fields through internships or faculty relationships.

Most important for current Mills students, says Dey, is to use the many available services of the Career Center but “not just two weeks before their graduation.” Her recommendation: start coming in and getting to know staff and center resources from your first year onward, certainly no later than early in your junior year. Then come and check in with one of them at least once a month.

Many students aren’t aware there are job announcements listed in the center, which may not be available elsewhere. Dey urges both current students and alumnae to use the Career Center website at where they can check out upcoming workshops and visits by job recruiters. Scheduled this fall and in the spring are recruitment sessions with such diverse employers as Hertz, the Peace Corps, Bank of the West, and the FBI’s Martin Mijowski, to name a few.

Suzie Bauer, assistant manager at Berkeley’s busy Anthropologie store, says she has one or two new applicants inquiring about employment in her store every day – most of them college graduates. But there is some encouraging news for holders of B.A.s who do not wish to work in retail, or don’t plan to stay for the long term.

From Dey’s perspective, the professional areas seeing noticeable increases in hiring in 2004 include teachers of math, science, bilingual and special education, health care managers, college level student counselors, nonprofit managers, and marketing and business graduates in the banking and financial areas. She expects these areas to continue to grow in 2005, with others opening up as well.

Dey, echoing most economists, believes the job market will grow stronger in 2005 as such variables as the presidential election, the stock market and the war in Iraq are behind us, or at least more resolved than they are presently. In the meantime, she offers advice that sounds almost counter-intuitive in this tough job market, especially for already frustrated job seekers. Her recommendation: figure out what you uniquely have to offer a potential employer.

If that one special thing about you doesn’t spring immediately to mind, she suggests that as a recent graduate it’s very likely you are familiar with the latest data, research, trends and state-of-the-art skills in your field – more so than people who’ve been in the workplace for several years. In our rapidly changing world economy, Dey reminds us, these are critically important assets.