Frayed job prospects, despite their degrees

New York TimesAugust 3, 2013 


Charles Well, right, a 2011 graduate who was denied a job because he lacked relevant work experience, speaks to students Janaina Silva, left, and Aila Zittlau during an English as a Second Language class at the Flow Language Institute in Atlanta, July 16, 2013. College graduates from two or three years ago are being overlooked - often deliberately - by recruiters eager to scoop up those from the latest graduating class.


At a time when many job seekers complain that their resumes vanish into a black hole, Charles Wells managed to get a high-level recruiter at Ernst & Young to meet with him in person – twice.

But the result was disheartening: Wells was told, he said, that company policy required him to have at least two years of experience in the field before he could be hired.

If Wells had been a newly minted college graduate, he would not have had that problem. Ernst & Young recruits heavily on college campuses for entry-level positions, no experience required. But Wells graduated in 2011, during one of the worst job markets in history, and his work record since then – like countless numbers of his peers – doesn’t measure up to what employers like Ernst demand for “experienced” applicants.

Even as the jobs picture slowly improves, the disadvantage of bad timing follows those who graduated during the worst years. Applicants such as Wells have neither the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed appeal of the class of 2013 nor the benefit of relevant work experience that might give them an edge.

“I’m competing against people that are graduating now,” said Wells, 27, who worked in construction and other jobs before starting college in 2007. “It’s easier to grab them up because they’re fresh.”

His problems stem from the fact that companies typically divide their hiring into two pools: entry-level jobs, which are overwhelmingly filled by campus recruits, and experienced workers. Some allow recent graduates to stay in the first category for a year or two after getting their diplomas. But recruiters say those applicants may find themselves at a disadvantage, especially if they have not been bolstering their resumes with classes, internships or volunteer work.

“If you’re a 2011 or a 2012 grad, the competition just got fierce – even more fierce – with the let-out of the 2013 class,” said Alexa Hamill, the U.S. campus recruiting leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers. “It’s like you’re in overtime, and they brought in the fresh team.”

The impact of this is difficult to measure because government statistics do not allow for a comparison of the fate of this year’s graduates with their immediate predecessors, instead lumping all college graduates younger than 25 into one group. And certainly college graduates as a whole are doing vastly better than those with only a high school diploma (young college graduates have an unemployment rate of just over 8 percent, while the unemployment rate for high school graduates within the same age group is close to 20 percent).

Years to catch up

But everything that is known about the job market points to the fact that Wells and his cohorts are feeling the pinch. Many of the country’s largest companies make most of their entry-level hires on campus, meaning there are no slots for the hapless person who had the misfortune of graduating in 2011. And historically, those who graduate during a recession earn far less than their peers who do not, and it can take a decade or more for them to catch up. Many have been forced to settle for lower-wage, lower-skill jobs, which has in turn helped increase joblessness among the high school graduates who previously held those jobs.

In 2000, about 60 percent of employed college graduates were working in jobs that required a degree, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Now fewer than half are.

Campus recruiters at a variety of institutions said that those who graduated in 2013 have had a relatively easy time finding jobs, in part because the prolonged economic downturn has made them more focused on preparing themselves for the workplace. Alumni who graduated in the previous few years continue to trickle in, asking for help.Dan Black, the Americas director of recruiting for Ernst, said young applicants who were not current students needn’t bother sending a resume without some connection to the firm through a friend, mentor or acquaintance. “You will not find entry-level jobs listed on our website,” he said.

For those with a job history marred by the recession, “we want to see that you have made productive use of your time since graduation – the Peace Corps, Teach for America, course work, a CPA exam,” he said. “I don’t think it’s bad to be a barista at Starbucks, but we need some evidence that you are continuing to move toward that goal of entering the field.”

Setting himself apart

Even as the financial crisis hit, Wells, who received a degree in geography from Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta and is now teaching English as a second language, remained confident in his prospects, believing he could set himself apart from his peers.

“I figured right away I was going to have a job, but I’m learning a large lesson right now,” he said.

Wells said his skills had already become outdated. New graduates in his major are required to learn technological skills he missed out on. He has had no luck applying at smaller companies where he could get the experience he needs for a job at Ernst.

Unlike those who were blindsided by the recession after they started school, the class of 2013 knew even as first-year students that they could take nothing for granted and that their competitiveness depended on getting internships, studying abroad and choosing their majors carefully. Wells, who is now heading to business school, said he wished he had chosen a more marketable major.

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