Recession-era students graduate into new economic reality

by Molly Bloom and Paul Tosto, Minnesota Public Radio
June 11, 2012

Times are hard for new college grads.

Many students have struggled to find their footing coming out of college in the recession years, dealing with rejection from employers, taking on unpaid internships or working outside their chosen fields in multiple jobs to make ends meet.

"I hear all the time people in college doing amazing things to build a solid resume, then graduate, cannot find a job, and have to work multiple temp jobs," said Brittany Laskowski, who graduated last year from the University of Iowa with a bachelor's degree in sports studies and mathematics. She has a full-time temp job with a mortgage company, coaches gymnastics part time and waits tables on weekends.

"We work these 'survival jobs' alongside people that didn't even go to college just so we can pay bills, and our resumes take a hit," said Laskowski, a source in the MPR News Public Insight Network. "No jobs are offered without X amount of years of experience in the field. But no opportunities are granted in order to get that experience. It's a vicious cycle sometimes. I think our generation, for the most part, is in more of a crisis than people sometimes realize."

We asked some 2011 graduates to tell us what their first year in the job market has been like. Most of them have finally found work, but some remain underemployed after months bouncing between unpaid and paid internships, contract work and unemployment.

Click on the photos below to read their stories.


Jerome Benner, St. Paul
Graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in urban studies

I'm currently a paid intern for a consulting firm that specializes in urban design, land-use and transportation planning. The majority of my work is performing field research and conducting traffic studies.

Paying off my student loans has been the most challenging part of life since graduation. It's difficult to have a steady income when working for a consulting firm because I am paid as a sub-contractor. The hourly rate of pay is great, but the consistency of the pay checks is not the best.

I'm 25 and I'm still living at home. I'll be going to graduate school this fall so I'm trying to make the transition to fully being on my own.

(MPR Photo/Molly Bloom)


Brooke Holmgren, Minneapolis
Graduated from the University of St. Catherine with a degree in English literature

A few months before I graduated I got a job as an editorial assistant with a magazine based in the area. I worked there for a little over a year at very low wages. I decided that I didn't want to spend my time doing that so I quit and got a job delivering sandwiches. I also clean houses on the side. I am now making more money delivering sandwiches and cleaning houses than I did when I had a full-time job.

I was getting my master's in English literature at St. Thomas, but recently decided to drop out. I was paying out of pocket because I don't want to take out more loans and I realized that I even if I did graduate with a master's degree, I'd still be in the same situation I'm in now. No one's going to give you more money for having a master's degree in English literature.

When I graduated from college I thought I was going to go into academia, but then as I started to go into that I realized it was really theoretical and nothing was getting done. That's why I want to go into teaching because it actually makes a difference for people.

I'm glad I majored in what I did. It's helped me in my personal life and to make decisions. I think I'm on the right track.

(MPR Photo/Molly Bloom)


Lily Berger, Minneapolis
Graduated from M.I.T. with a degree in mechanical engineering

I was able to find a job right after graduation. I think I really lucked out because it turns out that what I love is something that is valued by people in our economy. But I actually think a lot of things are valued unfairly. When you look at how teachers are paid compared to how professional athletes are paid, that bothers me a lot because teachers are so important and have been especially in my life to get where I am now.

I wanted to feel like what I was working on had real applications so that's why I became interested in the medical device industry. But one of the most challenging aspects of post-college life is learning how to interact with people in the real world in a company atmosphere. It's very different from academia.

(Photo courtesy of Lily Berger)


Drew Trogstad-Isaacson, Rochester
Graduated from Whitman College with a degree in geology

Right out of college I applied for various jobs with environmental consulting firms, looking for internships. I sent out jsut about 75 applications and for 20 of those I got to the final process of the interview stage, that final interview and then they'd give me a phone call and say, "Sorry, we went with someone else."

A bachelor's degree really doesn't cut it now, at least in the geology field. They're hiring for an entry-level position and they're hiring people who have a Ph.D.

I was finally able to in April of this year land a job with a local gardening center as a part-time summer thing to help boost the bank account. I have a lot of student, in fact a couple of them are coming due this month. I've been paying off one of them and that's been going alright, but with these other ones coming due it's going to be hard to find the money to help pay those off on a regular basis.

I'm living back with my parents. It's been interesting coming back, especially after four years of liberation. I've moved back in with one of my younger brothers because I don't have a room to myself. We have a small house and six people in the family.

It's been interesting going through this and try to figure out exactly what the next step is in creating an opportunity for myself.

(Photo courtesy of Drew Trogstad-Isaacson)


Pung Her
Graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire with a degree in graphic design

I spent the summer after graduation perfecting my portfolio, resume and cover letter while of course looking at job postings daily. During that time I took on a few freelance projects so that I could afford to feed myself. After several interviews I was offered a few jobs. The first job I took was a contract position that ended after five months, but then I was lucky enough to be offered a full-time web design job.

It was a bit hard in the beginning to get started just because you're brand new out of school and you don't really know what you're doing. So it took a lot of self-motivation for me to get out there, go to some interviews. But I do think I was well-prepared.

Find out what you want to do in college, even if you don't find out until the last year, it's ok to change what you want to do while you're still in school. If you graduate with a degree that you don't know what you want to do with it, you're pretty much stuck with it.

(MPR Photo/Molly Bloom)


Kevin Finnegan, St. Paul
Graduated from Macalester College with a degree in political science and education

I serve as an Americorps member with College Possible, a national college access program that helps low-income, largely minority first-generation students prepare for, enter and graduate college through an intensive curriculum of coaching and support. I work with 40 juniors, who have been spending four hours after school per week for months preparing for the upcoming ACT.

It's hard to resist the urge to throw your entire social life out the window and turn in 70 hour work weeks. Having the energy, desire and skills to make a difference in the world, I believe many recent college graduates struggle to find a balance between work and play.

Fingers seem to pointing in every direction when discussing who is to blame for the rising amount of debt students are exiting college with. I believe that this attention, along with rising costs of college and stagnant increases in employment compensation for lower-level employees, is making post-secondary education an nonviable option for many of my generation, particularly at high-cost liberal arts institutions. A college degree is one of the most important investments one can make for their future, as well as the future of their families. It is very discouraging to see avenues to college completion closing.

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Finnegan)


Lucy Nevanen, International Falls
Graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Biology, Society, and the Environment

After college graduation, I moved back home to International Falls. I applied for many jobs, from book-keeping to working in Voyageurs National Park. I didn't get any jobs (even ones that I was more than qualified for) for the first month and a half after graduation. I was living with my parents and getting very discouraged. I started substituting for para-professionals in Falls High School, and then was offered a part-time job at Rainy River Community College. Lucky for me, this job at Rainy River has turned into a full-time job. I am a recruiter. I am hoping to go back to graduate school at the University of North Dakota for my Masters in Public Health this fall.

I feel sometimes as if I have failed. I got a degree, but moved back home, back in with my parents, and into a job that I didn't go to school for. I also have a lot of student debt, and that has been very eye-opening and scary. My job now has no health benefits, so I am still very dependent upon my parents.

All of the kids I graduated from high school with that went to trade school are doing really great. They have good jobs and are buying houses, cars, etc. I kind of wish that someone had encouraged me to look into that more, but when I was graduating high school it seemed like the best thing to do was go get your bachelor's degree. Now I'm not so sure. My younger brother just graduated from high school and I'm really pushing him towards a trade.

(Photo courtesy of Lucy Nevanen)


Lauren Peck, Ham Lake
Graduated from St. Olaf College with a degree in English and Women's Studies

The summer right after I graduated I interned at the publishing company Llewellyn Worldwide. Currently I've been interning doing public relations for the Minnesota Historical Society and I've been interning writing articles for Metro Magazine's website

The constant hunt for a full-time job is always frustrating. I think it's something that I knew would be difficult when I graduated, but you don't realize just how hard it can be until you're actually living it. I've always been an achiever, and I quickly discovered the job market isn't as easy as, say, getting an A on a paper. Instead, it feels like I'm in a pool of lots of people who have the potential to get that A paper, but only one person is allowed to get that A, i.e. the job. The competition is always fierce, and I think I'm still trying to figure out how to make myself stand out from the pack.

(Photo courtesy of Lauren Peck)


Kevin Symanietz, Avon
Graduated from Beloit College with a degree in sociology

After graduation, I worked a minimum-wage part-time job last summer as a rental car driver. I left that for a full-time temporary job with a nonprofit social service program. That position ended in December and since then, I have been a part-time unpaid intern at my friend's start-up company.

The biggest challenge has been reconciling the fact that, as a nontraditional student, I chose to leave work, before the recession hit, to pursue a college degree only to find myself living with my mom and dealing with a far more competitive job market. I might say that it is like I am back to where I started after high school but with the noted exception that now I have $50,000 in student loans that I am expected to pay back.

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Symanietz)


Kirsten Blake, Mora
Graduated from University of Wisconsin - River Falls with a degree in Marketing Communications/Journalism

After a couple months of job searching and needing money for rent, I put out several desperate applications to service positions in restaurants, hotels, etc. I was offered and accepted a low paying, part-time job at a casino. I was mostly ashamed of where I worked. I dreaded seeing my peers or professors and having to admit that I wasn't using my degree. The hours were late and I had odd weekends. I rarely got to visit with my friends or family.

I had always wanted to work in an area where I could use my talents to help people. Rather then helping people, I found my self biting my tongue as I watched, disgusted, as my employer's clients gambled away my yearly salary in a week, yet wouldn't tip the valet. After a month or two I was offered a full-time, benefited position. I only intended to stay there until I found other work but I hit my one-year mark this March.

I was promoted to an area where I got to use my degree, with higher pay, a better work environment and could build experiences that would be attractive to other employers. I was very grateful for that job, but at the same time I felt ashamed, like I should be doing better. I often thought of starting my own business an simply creating my own employment, but it's too risky.

Just a few weeks ago, I was able to leave my job at the casino and I started a new job as a reporter for my hometown newspaper, the Kanabec County Times. It's a small cut in pay, but I feel a lot better about what I'm doing and where I am. It's closer to home and I feel like I'm contributing to society and supporting my hometown. My fiance and I moved into my parents basement temporarily until he finds work and we save up enough for a down payment on a house.

(Photo courtesy of Kirsten Blake)


Charity Tofte, Willmar
Graduated from Southwest Minnesota State University with a degree in corporate finance

I have a couple different jobs since I graduated: I have worked for a hospital as a business analyst as an interim employee and for the state as a workforce representative in a temporary, grant-funded position. It's been challenging learning how benefits at different companies work, and also navigating the world of health insurance.

It seems that the expectations of an ideal life post-graduation, expectations that were ingrained in us by our parents and society, are no longer viable. This new era of employment requires knowledge of multiple job seeking methods, and an awareness of an economy and a job market that is in transition. The formula that worked for the generations before us no longer works. Many of us are in a quarter-life crisis.

(Photo courtesy of Charity Tofte)


Casie Siekman, Minneapolis
Graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in strategic communication in advertising

After graduation, I continued to work at a hotel I had been with during college. When I was at the hotel, it was hard to continue to work at the same place that I worked at all through college. It also made me feel foolish for paying so much money and dedicating so much time to get a degree that helped me stay exactly where I was.

Then this January, I got a job as a project manager at an advertising agency in Minneapolis. This was after sending out hundreds of resumes and filling out a countless number of online applications - I'm still getting rejection letters. The job I currently have wasn't even the result of that - it was through a connection I made while networking. Finding a job that is challenging, meaningful and is something that I can be proud of. I enjoy feeling like I've earned to be where I'm at.

(Photo courtesy of Casie Siekman)


Laura Lundahdl, Lakeville
Graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a degree in International Studies, Political Science and History

After graduation, I had several small, part-time jobs, but spent every day for months applying to jobs that needed the degree that I had worked so hard for.

I was a double major, quadruple minor, had quite a bit of volunteer and non-profit experience, and graduated with a 3.43 GPA. It took me nine months to even get an interview, after having applied to well over 100 jobs. While I was able to find employment at retail stores and the like, the income was not nearly enough to live on my own. I moved home with my dad, and even now still struggle to pay for simple living expenses.

The Minnesota Historical Society has hired me to work at the Oliver H. Kelley Farm, which is definitely a dream job for me. I wake up every day extremely grateful that I have a job that utilizes my degree. Very few of my friends are as lucky.

It is very disheartening to go into this economy after having worked so hard to earn this degree. You spend your entire childhood being told to go to college because it will help you get a career. Now we are being told we need to get a master's degree. I am extremely grateful to President Obama and Congress for passing the health care bill, because at least I have health insurance right now, something I am not offered at the Historical Society. Politicians, don't forget about the recent college grads. We are not lazy because we don't have jobs, we have simply been dealt a very difficult hand in the game of economics.

(Photo courtesy of Laura Lundahl)


Kayleigh Halter, Minneapolis
Graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in economics

After graduation I continued to work at my part-time retail job that I had during college. I continued to apply for jobs that I genuinely wanted as well as jobs that I knew I was qualified for, even though I knew those jobs were not the careers I wanted to have in the long run. I accepted a temp. job at a health and welfare benefits call center as a customer service representative, definitely not my dream job, and something I knew I would not enjoy. But with the job market the way it is, I knew it would be better to get my foot in the door somewhere (anywhere!) than to wait for the ideal opportunity that most likely would not come my way.

I continued to apply for other jobs while I worked at the call center. In July, I got an interview at the corporation my sister interned with the summer before, and began working there as a sales and product planner. My job now is still not my dream job, but I'm not sure what that is anyway. I work between 50-60 hours per week, and since I earn a yearly salary instead of hourly wages, I consider myself a bargain for the company. It's stressful and sometimes exhausting work, but I'm young so I can handle it. I'm grateful that the job I have now forces me to use my brain, even though I'm not putting into practice what I learned sitting in my econonomics classes, I am using the critical thinking skills that all of my college classes developed.

It is so gratifying to be able to financially support myself without my family's help. I don't have to rely on anyone else to feed me, house me, or clothe me. It's a great feeling to not be a burden on anyone. Being a contributing member to society makes me feel accomplished. I earn a paycheck, I pay my taxes, and I stimulate the economy. I think that's pretty good one year after college.

(Photo courtesy of Kayleigh Halter)


Zach Cizek, St. Paul
Graduated from Saint Mary's University of Minnesota with a degree in marketing

The job search process for me was hard work. I knew that I wanted to get into medical device sales, but the hardest part was convincing companies that I would be the right fit having little medical sales experience. I found my job through contacting my employer, telling them about myself and why I would be a good match for a sales position before a job was even posted. Persistence is important. Constantly contact your potential employer and make it known that you want the position. This will make you stand out from those who just drop off a resume and complete an interview and wait. Do not wait.

- The best advice I can give people graduating this year is to try to gain internship or any work experience within the industry you want to get hired into. For me, experience and working while attending college showed employers I was passionate about the industry. Equally as important, I think the biggest mistake people make is waiting until graduation or the end of their last semester to begin the job search. Start a year before!

(Photo courtesy of Zach Cizek)


Ben Westby, Shandong Province, China
Graduated from Crown College with a degree in elementary education

I took on a full time teaching position in Eastern China, working as a fourth grade teacher in an international school. My wife, who graduated one year before me with a bachelor degree in family counseling, is a high school counselor there

The school that my wife and I work for is part of an amazing organization that understands the needs of the people who move half-way across the world. As such, they provide housing as well as a salary, which means my wife and I can pay off our student debt very quickly. At the rate we're going, we'll be free of student loan debt within two years.

Many friends who graduated with teaching degrees still cannot find teaching jobs, one of the main motivators for my wife and I to move overseas.

(Photo courtesy of Ben Westby)


Andrew Lovgren, St. Paul
Graduated from Northwestern College with a degree in journalism

After graduation, I wrote for a paper back home, while looking for a job in the Twin Cities. Now, I am unemployed and freelance writing for a small paper back home once a week.

It's incredible just how many opportunities there are out there, but how specific they have become in what they're looking for. What is the most discouraging, is just how many applications can be sent out to no response. Graduation from college doesn't mean a job, it means you can work towards a job in the future. It's a sad reality that is difficult to understand until you've taken off the cap and gown.

(Photo courtesy of Andrew Lovgren)


Abby Smith, St. Paul
Graduated from University of Wisconsin - Madison with a degree in Communication Arts and French

Since graduating, I've tried almost everything under the sun to find a job, make connections and do that buzzword: "network." Ultimately, I ended up finding a full-time job in a field that I love (media planning) thanks to my Starbucks addiction, and NO thanks to networking, an order of 100 free business cards, countless hours on LinkedIn and sucking up to old family friends for connections.

Since college, I've worked as a barista at Starbucks, a small business "Social Media Director," a paid marketing intern for a wedding boutique, an online editorial intern for the inflight magazine of an airline, and an unpaid PR intern for a Minnesota non-profit. I've learned so much about what I want, what I can do, and what I'm worth. It's been humbling, challenging, and fun.

(Photo courtesy of Abby Smith)

Listen to voices from the Class of 2011:

There is some reason for optimism. College grads still have far lower unemployment rates than those with only some college or less. The jobless rate for college grads fell to 3.9 percent in May, the lowest in more than three years.

A recent Rutgers University report found that only about half of those graduating between 2006 and 2011 are working full time and that the salary for a typical first job for grads is down 10 percent from pre-recession levels.

"Hiring for new college grads has been up each of the last couple of years with last year being the best year for new grads since 2007," said Andrew Ditlevson, associate director for employment services at the St. Cloud State University Career Center, which surveys Minnesota employers active in college recruiting.

"Assuming the economy continues to grow, I would anticipate hiring to be up a bit again this coming year. But right now we are in a wait-and-see mode," Ditlevson added. "Certainly the outlook for candidates seeking careers in high demand areas like IT and engineering should continue to be strong."

One point in the survey has stayed consistent before the recession and during the recovery. Asked what skills students need to improve upon, the top answer remains: "More realistic job expectations."