Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Graduating Into the Great Recession

I graduated into a recession, but went to graduate school instead, where poverty was less 'cyclical' than just 'the way things are.' When I emerged, the rest of the economy was moving along nicely, even though higher ed had long since adopted a much lower level of new normal than just about any other industry outside of print journalism and maybe typewriter repair.

As frustrating as that was, I experienced much of it as the result of personal choices I had made. I chose to go to grad school, which involved, among other things, being poor as a church mouse while my age cohort made actual money. I didn't choose that the "great wave of retirements" would result in the great wave of adjuncts, of course, but I expected at least some struggle.

I'm worried, though, about our current graduates.

At a community college, there's the relative luxury of suggesting transfer as the next step. No jobs at graduation? Go on for the four-year degree instead. You can wait out the recession and build your credentials at the same time. It's one of those rare times when the convenient short term move and the wise long term move are the same move. The opportunity cost is as low as most of us can remember.

That said, though, I can't help but notice that grads of four-year colleges aren't exactly rolling in job offers, either. And their student loans burdens are even higher than mine was.

The first real job is always the hardest to get. I remember the sickening sense, at the end of my Ph.D. graduation ceremony, when I realized that I was all Phudded up with nowhere to go. I had to cobble together a living as an adjunct, later backing into my first real job at the last place I would have expected it. My brother graduated with a degree in an evergreen discipline from a respected college, and had to live nomadically for a few years before clawing his way into an unexpected career. That's kinda how it goes in the liberal arts.

Lately, the same seems to be holding true in some of the more vocational disciplines. And I'm starting to see some very angry graduates who don't understand why they did everything right and can't find work. When history majors have a hard time finding work, they blame themselves. When nursing majors have a hard time finding work, they blame others.

The last couple of recessions felt like somebody had hit 'pause.' When they ended, things came back in relatively recognizable forms. This one's different. If an 18 year old asked me what the hot occupation would be in a couple of years, I'd have no idea what to say. It's just not obvious.

Paradoxically enough, that actually becomes a kind of argument for the liberal arts. It's one thing to juxtapose the employable to the abstract. But if nothing's employable anyway, why not go with something that's at least fascinating? Or, if you go the business route, focus on the entrepreneurial side; if the established firms are shrinking, there's not much point in trying to conform your way up. You can't play it safe anymore; there isn't any 'safe.'

I had a rough economic ride in my late twenties, but not like this. My condolences to the latest graduates. I hope you all keep this time in mind the next time you hear someone say that the economy is meritocratic.

From the job listings I'm seeing, the health professions are still going strong. I have students who graduated in the last year or so. A couple went to grad school. But many are finding tech careers. One is a communication specialist for a non-profit, helping them reach out via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I've seen a few of these jobs both in the for-profit and non-profit, often they're part-time or unpaid internships. Another student is about to get a job, I hope, with a hot tech company. Another is working at a library, putting both her technology and her puppeteering skills to work to help them raise funds. All of them are liberal arts majors who happened to work for me in a technology development program and lab. I think the combination has worked to their advantage. Had they just been tech people or just been liberal arts majors, their choices might have been more limited.
No jobs at graduation? Go on for the four-year degree instead.

Hmmm. Has there ever been a large job market in your area for persons with an AA degree? Our AS programs prepare students for jobs, but our AA program only prepares them for the junior year in college. They have demonstrated the discipline needed for certain jobs that used to go to HS grads, but few pick up a specific marketable skill such as CAD or graphic design.
I tell our students to enter a career where one-on-one personal interaction is required. Those jobs don't tend to go away and they certainly don't get outsourced to another country.

If your "kids" have math skills, foster them... there's no shortage of work.

I have a BS in Computer Science, and I hated my junior-year co-op. I screwed around for awhile while trying to "find myself" as the cliche goes (there was some method to the madness actually) and then decided to go to grad school for a degree in applied math.

My program was only a year for full-time students, and at the end of it, I landed a job in January paying a base salary of $70k.

My advice to those students who are good communicators AND good mathematicians: Pursue a degree in math... we have a shortage of people with talents in both fields. Much like teaching is an integral part of a PhD's work, yet it is taken for granted, so it goes with math. Being a good mathematician has nothing to do with good communication, and if you can't do the later, your usefulness with the former is limited. (And yes, when I was on the job hunt, many jobs that were requiring math skills also had to specify "good communication skills." Literally. (I guess it then begs the question... how many people are aware that they don't have good communication skills? But I digress.)
In times like these, any student that made an effort to get meaningful internships or jobs during school will be 5 million steps ahead of her peers. Now more than ever, experience, references and a professional network make all the difference.

Allied health is still strong - just not 5 minutes from the local program. We still have plenty of places nursing students can get jobs - but they're in rural areas that don't have programs. Diagnostic imaging, pharmacy and lab are all looking at big shortages at both the AA and BS level.

Bioinformatics is emerging as a big growth area, as well as quality assurance and clinical trials management (both areas that nurses are particularly suited for).

But I understand what you mean about it being tough now - I have students graduating with families who can't take midnight shifts or work weekends because of child care issues - but they are taking jobs at biotech companies instead of in hospitals and with the coming chaos in healthcare, I wonder if they won't be better off than their peers at the end of the day. The eclectic resume has its charms.
Never thought I'd be using my MRS instead of my doctorate, but jobs are scarce and childcare is expensive, so I'm in pajamas at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday covered in baby barf. Oh well.
Thanks so much for this post, Dean Dad. The advice question really kills me. When I read books that look at globalization trends (e.g. "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman or " India Express: The Future of the New Superpower" by Daniel Pak), I get scared.

I'm 27 and have three degrees (BA, 2006; MA in history, 2007 and a Master of Information Studies, 2009). As far as I am concerned, I have done everything right. Hell as soon as I wrapped up my degree, I started signing up for continuing education coursework to amp my practical/business skills. And now? All I have is a short term contract (less than one year) that doesn't provide me with enough security to get out of my parents' house.

If I were to offer advice to somebody who is 18 or 20 though, I do think I have some ideas. Get work experience, ideally with some real projects and responsibilities. In my interviews for jobs, I mainly talked about volunteer projects I've run since they demonstrate more responsibility than working lowly work that students tend to get. Get up your technology skills in some area (database work, get better than average ability with PowerPoint) that sets you apart from the masses who put "knows how to use MS Office" on their resume.

Get a foreign language skilled up as much as you can. For us up here, French is very important for the federal government but many companies that operate nationally also have French requirements (Spanish might work well in the US context). Finally, get your presentation skills up. You have to be able to talk to people about business/professional issues comfortably.

Increasingly, I'm starting to think that accounting is great set of skills to have. Even if you don't want to audit, it looks like it gives you a very good grounding in business operations.
I think the difference is it's been a tough job market for liberal arts majors for a while now, since probably the dot-com crash. If you have real skills in something, you are infinitely more employable. Not necessarily all technical degrees give real skills, but are more likely than their liberal arts counterparts. I am seeing lots of jobs in technical (IT, programming, engineering, nursing) go unfilled.

I tend to think of it in terms of is the education you got actually helpful in aiding you to do the job? If you get an AA in History but go on to say an administrative role at a non-profit...I'm not saying the degree didn't improve some of those great "transferable skills", but it obviously wasn't necessary to the job. If you have a nursing credential, that is REQUIRED to do the job. Similar to an engineering degree. Or in the case of programming, either a certification or proven track record to be able to script. So that is my new attitude towards education; is the degree you are working either teaching you skills you will apply (programming language, HVAC maintenance, etc) OR a required credential to get that kind of job (LVN/RN, CPA). However, I fear for today's graduates as well, it's worse than I've ever seen it even in fields I think will recover. Anyone who's already got a job/internship right now and is gaining experience is this economy should be quite thankful.
I got a degree in Computer Science almost 30 years ago now, and I have never been unemployed since. Actually, I was employed for a year before going to college as well.

Indeed, I managed to get to the US in 2002, but of course, that was on things I had done after my degree ...

It takes more than just a degree. However, my offspring have been required to get degrees in solid technical areas and not the liberal arts.
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