With diplomas in hand and hats suspended in the air, graduates may feel overwhelmingly excited about the possibilities of life after college. But once the enthusiasm of graduation settles, the reality of a dying job market and poor economy sets in.
Even for college graduates—the people most likely to avoid setbacks of the recession—employment rates are looking bleak. Only about 50 percent of 2011 graduates held a steady job, with median starting salaries down about 10 percent at $27,000, according to a study released by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
These statistics challenge each graduate as they enter into the professional world, and some are forced to opt for jobs that do not require a degree. Whether the decision to work in a profession that does not require a degree is a choice or a necessity, these graduates are spending years and thousands of dollars on an education that is seemingly unsupported.
“There just don’t seem to be any jobs in my field,” said Breana Hodgkins, 26, a recent SF State graduate with a degree in fashion merchandising. “I make just as much money working at the restaurant.”
Hodgkins, who works at Fog City Diner on Pier 39, is one of the 317,000 waiters and waitresses who have a degree, according to the Student Loan Debt Project. The same study showed that the average annual salary for waiters and waitresses is $22,380.
“Especially with tips, I make more than I would at an entry-level job,” said Catherine Rhem, 24.
The number of college graduates working in the food service industry is up about 17 percent, according to a study by the United States Department of Labor. A similar increase was seen in taxi drivers and gas station attendants. Rhem, who has a degree in history with a concentration in women’s gender studies from SF State, said that it really comes down to finances. Although she has been waiting tables at Park Chow restaurant for more than five years, she said eventually she does want to utilize her degree and pursue a career elsewhere.
“Serving is good money and I do enjoy it, but I didn’t spend 30 grand on an education to serve people for the rest of my life,” she said. “But then again I chose to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country and I need to make money to pay off debts.”
In 2010, the national average college graduate had accumulated about $25,000 in student loan debt by graduation, according to the Student Loan Debt Project. Student loans can be taken out to cover tuition, supplies or living costs. College graduates then have to face several decisions; despite the acknowledgment that a non-degree related job doesn’t look good on a resume, graduates have bills and debt to repay.
Many graduates may be looking at even more student debt. More than 60 percent of those who graduated in the last five years say they will need more formal education to be successful. While going after a master’s degree is ambitious, some students realize that it still won’t guarantee employment upon graduation.
“I’m deciding to go to grad school because I know what the job market is like right now,” said Adam Ayala, a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Ayala graduated in 2010, but after a year of looking for a job he found that he needed more education. “I know I still might not get hired even after I get my master’s, but I think right now is a better time to be in school anyway.”
The basis of getting and maintaining a job is largely based on which major a college student chooses. The Labor Department study suggests that young graduates who majored in teaching or engineering were most likely to find a job requiring a college degree, while cultural studies majors and humanities majors were less likely to do so.
For some college students who find themselves not utilizing their majors, their windows of opportunity may be getting smaller the longer they stay in non-degree related jobs. Without gaining experience in their fields, employers are less likely to hire these graduates, despite their degrees.
“I was still working at a retail job just to pay the bills, so that didn’t leave much time to intern or anything,” Ayala said. “Employers kept asking why I had graduated a year ago but I had no experience.”
Rhem also recognizes that her situation is not ideal; she never thought that a job she used as a means to get through school would be her main source of income even after she got her degree. Rhem said she knows her education wasn’t a waste, yet she can’t help but feel stuck, unable to get her foot through the door.
“I wish I could afford to take an entry-level position and start using my degree,” she said. “I look (for jobs) all the time, but right now, it’s looking pretty bleak.”