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Unemployment picture remains cloudy for this year's graduates

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Congrats, 2013 grads!


Who has a job?

Emily Huck does. Huck, 22, who will graduate next weekend from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, said she is relieved to have found a job. She will be returning to St. Louis to work in business management at a fitness center.

"It’s been a load off my mind, and it's great to not have to worry about it,’’ said Huck.

Claudia Rechtien, 22, who graduated in May 2012, said that it’s taken a while, but she, too, has a job. Rechtien, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mass media and media studies and a minor in marketing from Missouri State University in Springfield, said she looked for work for nine months before landing a paid internship at a video production company in St. Louis. That position recently turned into a part-time job.

"The train is rolling again,” said Rechtien.

There are jobs, but it can take creativity — and persistence — to find them, say the two young St. Louisans who responded to recent Public Insight Network questions from the St. Louis Beacon. 

On May 3, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that the nation’s unemployment rate is now at 7.5 percent, with the economy adding 165,000 jobs in April. The good news is that the unemployment rate, which has dropped 0.4 percentage points since January, hasn’t been this low since December 2008 when it was 7.3 percent. But that news is tempered by the depth of the Great Recession that left the nation in a big employment hole. 

While the slow recovery of the labor market affects all age groups, public policy analysts say it’s been particularly hard on new high school and college graduates. Historically, young workers experience disproportionate pain during economic downturns — and the nation's overall unemployment rate doesn’t tell that story.

About that promise of youth 

With May graduation come the annual reports on youth employment. Here is a sampling:

  • In April, the national public policy center Demos published "Stuck: Young America’s Persistent Jobs Crisis,” which analyzed Bureau of Labor statistics from 2012 and concluded that young Americans have gained little ground so far in the nation’s economic recovery. Nearly half of the nation’s unemployed — 45 percent — are 18-to-34-year-olds. The report noted that 4.1 million new jobs need to be created just to return to pre-recession employment. Based upon the job growth of 2012, that would take 10 years. And even then, workers under 25 will still face unemployment rates twice the national average. The news was worse for young adult African Americans who experience unemployment rates at double the rates for whites and for young Hispanic workers whose unemployment rates are 25 percent higher than those of whites. 
  • In its report "The Class of 2013,” the Economic Policy Institute pointed to the spike in unemployment and underemployment of young college graduates since the Great Recession began in 2007 and concluded that “today’s unemployment crisis among young workers did not arise because these young adults lack the right education or skills. Rather, it stems from weak demand for goods and services, which makes it unnecessary for employers to significantly ramp up hiring.” The numbers are even harsher for young high school graduates, who are facing an unemployment rate of just under 30 percent (compared with 17.5 percent in 2007).
  • Generation Opportunity, a national youth advocacy organization that releases a monthly “Millennial Jobs Report,” earlier this month warned about an unemployment rate of 11 percent for 18-to-29-year-olds. The report termed 2013 "a rough time to be a young person in America.” The various analysts also agree that graduating in a bad economy has long-lasting economic consequences because the earning power of graduates will likely be diminished for more than a decade. But they disagree about solutions.

The Economic Policy Institute, for its part, called the scarcity of job opportunities a symptom of weak demand for workers. The report suggested: “What will bring down young workers’ unemployment rates most quickly and effectively are policies that will generate strong job growth overall, such as fiscal relief to states, substantial additional investment in infrastructure, expanded safety net measures, and direct job creation programs in communities particularly hard-hit by unemployment."
On the flip side, a statement from Generation Opportunity’s president Evan Feinberg said that deficit spending and government meddling are contributing to the malaise: "Half of all graduating seniors aren't going to find meaningful work in the coming months. And it isn't like politicians care — they spent this week pushing an Internet sales tax which hits our generation hardest. Reckless policies coming from Washington continue to prevent the next generation from prospering."

So, what’s a graduate to do?

Networking and pounding the online pavement

Huck said she feels fortunate to have lined up a job after graduation because she knows many graduating seniors who have not yet found work. She emphasizes that her position in business management is not directly related to her field of study, but she believes the skills she developed as an English major will apply. And she thinks there’s a lesson in that for students who fear that majoring in liberal arts will render them unemployable.

"I would advise incoming university students not to be hesitant about choosing a major that does not provide a ‘set path.’ Many might shy away from a degree that appears to give a lack of direction,’’ she said, adding, "This was something that I struggled with during my time as an undergraduate."

Huck said that, in fact, while pursuing an English degree she was able to develop and fine-tune her writing, communication and analytical skills which she believes sets her “ahead of the curve in a time when good written language and communication skills often suffer."

Huck and Rechtien both say they found their jobs through networking — someone who knew someone who might be hiring — rather than through the traditional application process.

Rechtien said that pounding the online pavement was particularly frustrating.

"The online application process is easy and takes an hour and you get your information in instantly. When it doesn’t work out you have no idea, and all you get is the blanket rejection, if even that," she said.

Rechtien, who interned at the St. Louis Beacon and at the Nine Network while in college, said that if she had to do it over, she would consider majoring in public relations through the communications department because she was more interested in the research or business end of journalism.

"It’s just so hard when you’re 18. You don’t know what you want to do, but I think trying to find the right mix is the best course of action because you don’t want to be miserable. But you also don’t want to take underwater basket weaving," she said.

She advises students to think hard about their course selection.

"There are majors and minors that can be both practical and fun and interesting," she said. "If you’re well-versed on what courses are allowed to double-count toward your program, it gives you wiggle room in your schedule to do what you want and complete a major that has job security — if that’s your priority."

Rechtien adds that she was more fortunate than many graduates because she has no student loans — and that she was able to live at home with her family during her job search. Still, she acknowledges that the long months were difficult because she was "the girl who did everything right." That included graduating summa cum laude.

"And then the train track ends, and there’s no momentum," she said.

Rechtien said she is excited about her current job as a production coordinator because it involves project management, as well as assisting with video production.

"I’m the girl who likes to have her hands in many cookie jars," she said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.