The Graduates
Recent college grads find hope—and, hopefully, work—in the midst of a sluggish economy
by Sharon A. Shaw


Allie Cislak entered college on an upward trajectory, full of drive and all but assured of a promising life. Her outlook has changed in the three years since the financial meltdown of 2008, with all its lingering ghosts.


Cislak, a senior at Penn State, is active in the school community and an assistant coach for her cheerleading team, all while maintaining a spot on the dean’s list for the last four semesters. It seems her qualifications would make her an exceptional candidate for any number of positions, yet she’s no longer confident there are many positions to have.


“I am an education major and with this economy many schools are experiencing budget cuts and pay freezes,” she laments. “While there is always a demand for teachers, there is no money to continue paying existing teachers, let alone new teachers. I am concerned that I will have a difficult time finding a school that is even accepting applications for first-year teachers.”


Cislak, now 21, has valid reasons to be concerned about employment. The hours available at her summer job were limited due to demand and she has—as of yet—been unable to find work during the semester.


She is hardly alone in her plight. The ongoing economic situation has cast a dark shadow on the bright prospects of many recent graduates. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds in the United States is nearly 15 percent, compared with the national average of 10 percent. The job placement firm Adecco reports that 60 percent of these recent graduates have been unable to find a full-time job in their chosen profession, leaving as many as 18 percent to turn to full-time jobs outside of their field of study—often ones which do not require a degree. About a third of those graduates surveyed are still living with their parents, and 17 percent claim to be financially dependent on them.


Meanwhile, older workers, whose savings and retirement accounts have suffered, are remaining in jobs they may have otherwise retired from, while layoffs have flooded the market with experienced candidates competing for the same entry-level positions as new graduates. Some have sought to improve their opportunities by pursuing advanced degrees—piling up debt from student loans, while others choose to tighten their budgets and cope with the emotional effects of uncertainty as they search. 



The bad news and dire figures can follow young workers for many years—even decades. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that people hired during a recession are paid an average of 9 percent less than those hired in a strong economy, and it can take nearly a decade to close the wage gap. In other words, an extended period of unemployment at the start of one’s career can depress the lifelong income of those who accept jobs beneath their capabilities or who are unable to gain related experience. In Japan, for example, which experienced similar economic circumstances in the 1990s, members of its so-called “Recession Generation” are now in their 30s and account for 60 percent of reported cases of depression, stress and work-related mental disabilities.


“The No. 1 factor in psychological depression is the feeling of helplessness,” says Dr. Jack Gregory, a psychologist practicing in Willow Grove. The symptoms of such a prolonged mild depression, he suggests, can include the postponement of relationships and even marriage. He cites one patient who felt he had no option but to move across the country in order to accept an unpaid internship, leaving behind the friends and family whose relationships are essential to coping with stress.


“Attempt as much as possible to stay physically healthy,” Dr. Gregory says. “Eating well, maintaining physical exercise and consciously cultivating optimism help counteract feelings of helplessness.” His advice to those struggling with such feelings is to “cultivate compassion for yourself” by recognizing that some circumstances are out of their control, while encouraging them to take control where they can by getting creative and exploring entrepreneurial opportunities.


History seems to demonstrate the popularity of this response, suggesting that those who have felt disillusioned by the assumptions of the past have often been emboldened to strike out in new directions, including starting their own businesses.


While internships, though often unpaid, provide experience and perhaps a foot in the door, others choose to avoid having a blank résumé by dedicating their free time to public service. Sources suggest applications to organizations such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America are up, which may ultimately benefit not just job seekers but also their future communities. History shows that if the Recession Generation follows the model set forth by the Depression Generation, raised in the 1930s, talented graduates may choose public service over the private sector—in part because that is where the jobs are, though surveys have also shown that today’s young people tend to be more civic-minded than in the past.


According to the Institute of Education Sciences, the number of students pursuing master’s degrees has almost doubled in recent years—and with good reason. Studies have shown that people with an associate’s degree earn up to 25 percent more each year than someone who is doing the same job without a degree; a bachelor’s degree holder will earn 60 percent more; and those with master’s degrees will earn an average of 23 percent more than even those with a bachelor’s degree. These figures represent a significant financial gain over the course of one’s career. With one in four students already in debt, some question whether they will be satisfied—when they do begin their careers—earning less than those who chose employment over education during this time. Even so, college graduates’ employment rose 2 percent between the first quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2010—despite the recession.


The recession has had a positive effect on enrollment at Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, according to Dr. Nicola DiFronzo-Heitzer, dean of admissions. “This year was the largest enrollment in over 25 years,” she says. The independent two-year college offers students the ability to obtain certification in more than 20 programs, including histology, nursing, physical and occupational therapy assistant and veterinary technology.


Harcum’s transfer program has always been popular with students, including those who may already have completed a bachelor’s program elsewhere but are looking to add to their skills. According to Dr. DiFronzo-Heitzer, it is a good time for people who are out of work to enroll or for those working part-time and hoping to enhance their career prospects.


Immaculata University, for its part, has seen a 30 percent increase in applications for its master’s-level courses. Immaculata, a private college in Chester County, offers more than 60 professional programs, such as music therapy, psychology, counseling and organizational leadership. All of its academic departments offer internship opportunities either as requirements or for elective credits.

Sandra Rollison, assistant dean in the school’s College of Graduate Studies, says that Immaculata’s career-oriented programs “allow students to advance in their career.” Students range from recent graduates in their 20s to those looking for a second career in their 60s.


“In the past they might have had a lucrative career and return because they want a more meaningful career,” Rollison says. Now, though, they often return out of necessity; many have a bachelor’s degree but know they need a master’s to advance. Not only have the motives changed, but also have student lifestyles.


“[Students] have full boats, they are juggling work schedules,” she says. “It’s not as leisurely as it once was. They are interested in finishing up as soon as they can.”


Luck Favors the Prepared

Stephen Vujevich is a recent graduate of Immaculata with a bachelor’s in communications. He found employment in his field as a communications specialist for Gwynedd-Mercy College, though he admits finding a job in this economy was “beyond ridiculous.” Vujevich started his job search in January and estimates that he applied for 40 to 50 jobs. Friends teased that he was “no fun” last semester.


“It was a full-time job in itself,” he explains, but now some of those friends are working part-time and unpaid, just to gain job-related experience. In this recession, it is difficult to find entry-level jobs at places other than McDonald’s or Walmart.


“Everyone tightens their belt, no matter the industry,” he says. “Jobs I could do were requiring three to five years of experience; I felt I could fulfill expectations, but I could not get [an interview].”


Among the most disappointing rejections was the explanation that 160 candidates applied, only 10 were called and the top five were interviewed. Vujevich passed all those hurdles but lost out to another applicant who had more experience. Finally, he “got lucky,” though his hard work and persistence no doubt played an important role in finding gainful employment. Ultimately he feels it may have been because of a relationship that he had forged with a staff member at the college who gave him a recommendation. “It comes down to who you know,” he says.  


Another important asset to Vujevich’s hiring was his versatile skill set, which was crucial because he was up against a more qualified candidate but had greater diversity. “I’m a tech guy,” he says. “One of my hobbies is video editing. I’m not an expert, but I had a skill that they wanted to [use to] expand their marketing.”


Vujevich focused on social-media marketing during his extra time; for a mock presentation in class he generated a smartphone QR (or Quick Response) code, shot a video and posted it to YouTube. This sort of specialized experience gave him the advantage he needed to be successful in his job search. 


“You can get the degree, but everyone has that,” he says. “It is how you set yourself apart that makes a difference.” He believes his college selection was integral to his finding employment, though “nothing can prepare you for the real world.”


As his friends still struggle to find jobs, Vujevich provides encouragement, in part by suggesting that employers take a closer look at recent grads who hunger for nothing more than an opportunity to prove themselves.


“We are doing what needs to be done to survive,” he says, “and waiting for our chance.”


As for hopeful teacher Allie Cislak, she shares Vujevich’s optimism for the future, however measured it may be. “I am hoping,” she says, “that if schools that are being forced to let go of teachers due to budget cuts, being a first-year teacher with only a bachelor’s degree will make [me] a more affordable candidate for a job position.”