Graduating in hard times

Many University students are left with an uncertain future after graduation.

University of Minnesota graduate Tom Alane prepares a pizza Friday afternoon at Campus Pizza.

University of Minnesota graduate Tom Alane prepares a pizza Friday afternoon at Campus Pizza.

Kyle Potter

Breaking even baking pizza

Tom Alane laid out seven thin circles of dough on the counter in front of him. He dropped a scoop of sauce into the center of one before evenly spreading it out to the crust and moving on to the next.

He and the other two kitchen staff rarely spoke as they prepared for a small lunch rush around noon Friday. He had music on his mind.

Alane started working at Campus Pizza a year and a half ago, before he graduated from the College of Liberal Arts with a degree in music performance.

Throughout his four years at the University of Minnesota, Alane was unsure of how his degree would translate to a career. It hasnâÄôt yet, and heâÄôs not alone.

In September, the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that the U.S. economy experienced a recession from December 2007 to June 2009 âÄî the longest such economic event since World War II. But unemployment lingers: On Dec. 5, the Labor Department announced the national unemployment rate had increased to 9.8 percent in November.

According to a Minnesota Daily survey of about 400 University of Minnesota spring graduates âÄî 203 from the College of Liberal Arts, 125 from the College of Science and Engineering (formerly the Institute of Technology) and 61 from the Law School âÄî the class of 2010 is still finding its way into the job market. According to the survey, which was conducted by telephone in November and December, 88 percent of CLA graduates, 83 percent of CSE graduates, and only 70 percent of Law School graduates had found employment in the six months since graduation.

Moreover, many respondents who were employed said their current job was not one theyâÄôd wanted: While nearly all currently employed CSE graduates were satisfied with their jobs, only 68 percent of CLA graduates and 60 percent of Law School graduates were satisfied with their current employment.

AlaneâÄôs job at Campus Pizza, a temporary solution to a long-term problem, is typical.

“Right now, IâÄôm just doing it and waiting for things to happen,” he said.

The sun poured through the window and onto AlaneâÄôs back as he played guitar in his apartment Sunday afternoon.

This wasnâÄôt supposed to be a solo show.

The blizzard Saturday interrupted his bandâÄôs concert that night, which was to be their first in a month. Alane was disappointed with the bad luck, but Circle of Heat âÄî for which he plays guitar âÄî has another show this Thursday.

Circle of Heat has come first for Alane since the band started in his junior year.

Working at Campus Pizza as a kitchen manager for 30 hours a week helps him break even financially and allows the band to practice weekly and play several shows a month.

“ItâÄôs great just to have something where generally, IâÄôll have nights and weekends so I can keep Circle of Heat going as much as I want it to,” he said.

Alane is a wizard with a guitar. He can hold a conversation while improvising a solo, never looking at his fingers as they travel up and down the fret board.

But Alane didnâÄôt get his degree in guitar performance. He picked one up and began experimenting in eighth grade. HeâÄôs been playing the viola âÄî the instrument he studied at the School of Music âÄî since fourth grade.

From the time Alane first began taking music classes at his grade school in Dousman, Wis., thoughts about a future career never really mattered, he said.

“I always kind of thought that, either way IâÄôm going to learn a lot of what I want to be learning.”

In addition to improving his chops on the viola, classes in the music schools afforded him opportunities like playing with the Minnesota Orchestra several times.

The prospect of returning to school for more training in hopes of eventually joining such an orchestra has crossed his mind, Alane said. But for now, he has his sights set on making his band into a career.

“I would love to have it be something I would live on,” he said. “It quickly becomes clear that thatâÄôs very difficult to do.”

Aside from the occasional $20 each band member will pocket, most of the money from shows gets poured back into the band for future recordings.

But Alane hopes the music gods will smile upon Circle of Heat in 2011. As the de facto manager of the band, heâÄôs booked shows around the state for the first two months of the new year. Coupled with new recordings and the hopes of playing a festival or two, Alane is confident he and the band can start pulling more profit.

For the time being, heâÄôs happy making pizzas as he waits to see how that future plays out.

“My degree didnâÄôt really apply”

 

Cody Blades is in her seventh year at Perkins Restaurant and Bakery. When she started there at 16 years old, it was good work. Now 23, with a double major in sociology and linguistics and an extended internship in Sen. Al FrankenâÄôs office behind her, she feels dramatically over-educated and overqualified to serve coffee and pie.

“The customers think that you are stuck in a dead-end job and are very pretentious about it,” Blades said. “I just want to scream, âÄòI am smart, get me out of here.âÄô”

“I really dislike working there.”

Blades knew going in to college that her major, sociology with a focus on criminology, typically demands a postgraduate degree to find a career.

“I had no dreams of grandeur,” she said. “I knew I would need more schooling.”

Even still, aside from an internship with Franken, Blades has been disappointed to find how limited her options are with just a bachelorâÄôs degree. Blades has plans to attend law school next fall and thought she might find a job in the interim, but sheâÄôs struck out so far.

“I realized that my degree really, really didnâÄôt apply to anything,” Blades said. “And it wasnâÄôt so much like a thought in my head anymore. It was, like, a reality on my computer screen.”

While 88 percent of CLA graduates had found work, they were by far the least likely to be employed in a field associated to their major, with only 41.5 percent finding related work.

Last month Blades added a part-time job in retail at Williams-Sonoma, which she also considers temporary.

In October, Blades took the Law School Admission Test. Having grown up in Richfield, Minn., and spent her entire life within a 10-mile radius, sheâÄôs now evaluating law schools not only on academic credentials but on where sheâÄôd want to live in the long term: maybe Colorado, the East Coast or Pacific Northwest. SheâÄôll not be making the move alone.

In the same month, Blades got married. She said her husband, whose degree virtually guarantees him steady work, adds mental stability to her situation.

“I think that if I was doing this alone, I would be extremely afraid to relocate,” Blades said, “maybe to the point where I wouldnâÄôt.”

Blades racked up student loan debt as an undergraduate and will begin paying down two loans in January. SheâÄôs facing the possibility of a whole lot more as she considers law school, but it doesnâÄôt worry her.

“I think that if thereâÄôs anything worth getting in debt for, itâÄôs your education,” Blades said.

Getting a job beyond her reach

Amy Abt planted grape seeds with her father on their land during her senior year of high school.

As sheâÄôs watched a four-acre vineyard grow since then, Abt has had wine on her mind.

She is all business. Abt is friendly and personable but her speech is almost formal âÄî as if it were planned in advance.

Before she was halfway through her four years at a tiny charter high school in Viroqua, Wis., she knew she was heading toward a major and, eventually, a career in public relations.

Her new career comes through in her voice. So does her motivation.

“I wasnâÄôt really sure what that meant to begin with, but I knew that I was highly organized and very interested in event planning,” Abt said.

By the time graduation day rolled around in May, she was one of just a handful of CLA grads with a new job lined up in her major. Abt began a paid internship with Harvest Public Relations in Minneapolis just days after she and the rest of the class of 2010 took their last finals.

When she talks about her time at the University, thereâÄôs no mention of parties. Grades, study habits and internships came first.

“Editing my résumé is one of my favorite pastimes,” she said with a laugh. “Maybe that makes me a nerd, or maybe that helped me in the long run.”

For eight years, sheâÄôs been building a career âÄî building something to put her new degree in strategic communications from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication to work.

Abt got her first taste doing public relations with an internship for a local clothing line, a job she took chiefly for the free clothes, she said.

Then it was back to the world of wine. She worked part time at a wine-tasting bar during her junior year, putting in up to 30 hours per week.

An internship last year with St. Croix Vineyards in Stillwater, Minn., evolved into a full-time job. She worked upwards of 50 hours a week while taking her final courses at the University.

At the time, Abt thought she had found her career path. She was content to spend her next years working at the winery, where she was eventually promoted to assistant manager.

It wasnâÄôt until she “extended her feelers” into the Craigslist job marketplace that she stumbled upon the internship with Harvest PR. She didnâÄôt meet the jobâÄôs qualifications but sent in her résumé anyway.

AbtâÄôs enthusiasm and work experience won her an informal interview. After months of staying in touch, she was offered a job.

By the end of the summer, her internship became a part-time job. Sometime in 2011, sheâÄôll start working there full time.

“All because I jumped on this Craigslist opportunity that was beyond my reach,” she said.

Abt has since left St. Croix Vineyards, but she still has a foot in the world of wine, working part time as a waitress at a local wine-tasting bar.

After another decade or two working in public relations, Abt dreams of building her own winery, combining her PR experience and wine expertise to make it a success.

From the outset, Abt set out to work as hard as possible and to quickly build a career.

“So far, thatâÄôs paid off,” she said.

“ItâÄôs not a career”

David Keatts has been interested in planes âÄî anything that flies, really âÄî for as long as he can remember. When Keatts, who grew up north of Minneapolis, had to decide what his college major would be, he chose aerospace engineering.

While in college, Keatts took a job as a cook at a Famous DaveâÄôs restaurant to make a little spending money. Two and a half years later, heâÄôs still there.

After graduation, Keatts began sending out print applications and applying online to Minnesota-based companies. At some companies, heâÄôs now applied more than once. Leading up to graduation, Keatts knew it wouldnâÄôt be easy to find a job that would keep him in Minnesota âÄî aerospace jobs, like those found at the Boeing Company or Lockheed Martin, are more prevalent on either coast of the country.

“I already knew I was going to have a hard time in the first place,” Keatts said. “I wasnâÄôt expecting much, but I was hoping for a job by now.”

Among CSE graduates, 83 percent of those surveyed are employed, and 69 percent are working in a field related to their area of study.

As his job search drags on, Keatts has taken more hours at Famous DaveâÄôs. Over the weekend, he worked double shifts both Saturday and Sunday. The job has its perks âÄî “I get free food,” he said âÄî but he has consciously avoided becoming a manager because he doesnâÄôt want to get comfortable there.

“ItâÄôs just a job,” Keatts said. “ItâÄôs not a career.”

He said his bosses want him to stay on but are also rooting for him to find work.

“They already know IâÄôm applying places,” Keatts said. “They know my degree, they know the whole situation.”

Keatts said if he doesnâÄôt catch a break soon, heâÄôll consider leaving the state where heâÄôs spent his whole life. The decision would be complicated by his family and friends here and his live-in girlfriend.

“WeâÄôve talked about it,” Keatts said, referring to his girlfriend.

“After a while, if I canâÄôt get a job, IâÄôll try other places. And when it comes to it, weâÄôll have to figure out what we can do.”

                 Low income with a law degree                 

Dana Boraas has heard that graduating from law school used to be a lot different. As students approached schoolâÄôs end, firms swooped in to compete for talent, and many students who hadnâÄôt worn a cap and gown, let alone passed the bar exam, had a career on the way out the door.

In the aftermath of the recession, thatâÄôs all changed, she said.

“A lot of people I graduated with didnâÄôt know at all what they were doing next,” Boraas said. “There just arenâÄôt as many jobs out there.”

The downturn has been especially hard on graduates like Boraas, who eschewed corporate work for legal aid and nonprofit positions. With grant money drying up, such positions have temporarily disappeared.

Boraas, who got her bachelorâÄôs degree at Concordia College, said she knew she wanted to practice that type of law “as soon as I was born.”

“IâÄôve never had any interest in [corporate law], whatsoever,” she said.

But Boraas has watched some of her classmates and friends, who once took similarly principled stances against corporate practice, change their minds in recent months. In particular, those who are married and have kids have decided they need to take any work they can get, corporate or not.

“No judgment on them, especially those who were maybe a little more settled than I am,” Boraas said. “But they said, âÄòThe reality is I canâÄôt find a job that I want to do, so IâÄôm going to accept this firm job.âÄô”

Even with those kinds of sacrifices, only 48.5 percent of survey respondents who graduated from the Law School have found legal work. Law School graduates were least content with their current employment âÄî only 60 percent were satisfied. They also had the lowest appreciation for their degree: 23 percent of those surveyed said getting their degree at the University of Minnesota was not worthwhile.

Boraas applied to legal aid and nonprofit openings in the Midwest, the urban Northeast and rural South before receiving an offer from AmeriCorps, which she accepted in November. Boraas is now taking on immigration and tax cases and trying to set up a volunteer attorney position for both categories in an attempt to reach out to underemployed attorneys.

“We have a lot of unmet need,” she said.

BoraasâÄô AmeriCorps salary is based on poverty wage guidelines, meaning sheâÄôll be paid around $11,000 in annual salary, compared to $45,000 at a typical legal aid position or $50,000 and up at a corporate firm.

“ThatâÄôs why law school is expensive,” she said. “They assume you might be making six digits a few years after graduation.”

BoraasâÄô career path only recently became possible: The College Cost Reduction and Access Act, signed into law in 2007, offers forgiveness of student loan debts after 10 years of public service, meaning that Boraas will pay a minimal amount of her roughly $100,000 of debt.

That still leaves the poverty-line salary. Boraas, who received her first small paycheck Friday, has a simple solution.

“I have a boyfriend,” she said, laughing. “I mean, sincerely, I havenâÄôt paid any of the bills since I graduated, because I donâÄôt have money.”

 Searching and waiting 

Clara Owen liked a lot of things about getting a journalism degree, except for the actual practice of journalism. Partway through her college years, Owen, who graduated with a degree in journalism, decided she was “completely inept” at investigative journalism and took an interest in public relations.

“I went in [to college] with a specific idea,” Owen said, “and I left with a specific idea. But there was a big shift about halfway through.”

Owen is one of 21 unemployed CLA graduates found in the Daily survey.

As Owen has pursued jobs in the communications field, sheâÄôs been held back by limited experience and education specific to the jobs. Owen has had three job interviews since graduation: first with state Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul; then with Epic, a medical software company based in Wisconsin, and finally with Ion Corp., an aerospace engineering firm. She was most hopeful about her chances at Ion, which she interviewed with in September.

“The interview went really well,” Owen said. “And then I havenâÄôt heard anything, so IâÄôm assuming that oneâÄôs kaput.”

These days Owen, who now lives with her parents, spends most of her time searching for jobs online, researching the companies with openings and tailoring her cover letter and résumé to those opportunities.

Aside from job hunting, Owen said her hours are spent “reading and waiting.”