In a packed pub in midtown Manhattan, Ryan Flagherty is surrounded on three sides by people clamoring for his attention.
He spins one way and pours a shot of vodka into a glass, then turns around and wedges a lime into a bottle of beer, pushing it across the counter. Ignoring the annoyed gaze of a bulky man on his right, he turns again to a touch-screen register to ring up the sales.
Its just a minute out of the grueling, physically demanding eight-hour shift that will last long into the night. But Flagherty, 28, isnt complaining.
With the generous tips of New Yorkers and his pick of shifts, he pulls in around $80,000 a year as a bartender. Its more than he was offered for various office jobs he considered when he arrived in the city, even though hes highly educated.
I have a masters in economics, and Im bartending in New York, he said with a shrug. Its a good way to make money.
A college degree once all but guaranteed a well-paying job and higher earnings than high school graduates. But fewer of these good jobs are now available because of both long-term economic changes and the lingering effects of the recession.
People such as Flagherty with college and advanced degrees are working jobs that dont require them, whether by choice or necessity. That in turn pushes people without college degrees out of those jobs.
In 1970, only 2 percent of firefighters had college degrees; now 18 percent do, according to Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University. Less than 1 percent of taxi drivers had a college degree in 1970; now 15 percent do. About 25 percent of retail sales clerks have college degrees, Vedder said.
The main reason is a pretty simple one, he said. The number of college graduates has grown vastly faster than the number of jobs that require high-level education skills.
Oversupply of graduates
In the 1980s and 1990s, the demand for college graduates started booming, especially in the lead-up to the tech boom, said Paul Beaudry, an economist at the University of British Columbia who has studied this trend. Wages grew, and a college education paid off.
But when the tech bubble burst, the economy was left with an oversupply of college graduates. Some went into industries related to housing or finance, and then the recession wiped out those jobs. No industry has emerged to employ all the people who got college degrees in that time, he said.
As more college graduates have flooded the market, employers are able to offer lower wages. The earnings of college graduates have fallen about 13 percent in the past decade, according to Drexel University economist Paul Harrington.
Saim Montakim has a bachelors degree in accounting but drives a New York City taxicab. Its strenuous work, but he can make $200 on a good day. On a bad day, he barely can pay the rent for the taxi and the cost of gas.
Hes getting a masters degree in human resource management and hoping that his dual degrees will help him find a better job. The accounting jobs he was offered upon graduation were all entry-level, paying $10 an hour. He prefers driving a taxi to being stuck in an office from 9 to 5 at that wage, he says.
Burden of student loans
Montakim, who is from Bangladesh, came to the U.S. to get an education. He figured that with a college degree, hed be able to find a good job and build a life for himself in America. Now he acknowledges that his idea that a college education automatically leads to a job might have been unrealistic.
Ive always had a dream of being in America, for an American education in the United States, said Montakim, 38. But now I think my expectations were too high. I was far, far beyond reality.
Aside from his daily expenses, Montakim has student loans to repay.
Because college is so expensive, many students are facing a dilemma: If they go to college, they still might not get a job that requires a college degree, and theyll be on the hook for big student loan payments. But if they dont go to college, they might be pushed out of entry-level jobs by overqualified college graduates who cant find other work.
It puts college grads in a condition thats unique out of the last 30 to 40 years, Harrington said. The yield from investing in college, students ability to pay off debt, has diminished.