Part blog, part oral history, part research project.
How has the Great Recession affected your path beyond college? What is your story?

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Jennifer Howard wrote me after reading a comment I posted online, I think the email she sent is a suitable introduction:

Hi Melissa,

I came across your blog from your comments on the May 18th NY Times article. I just started reading it and I love it! I think that its a fantastic idea and I really respect that you are doing it on your own volition. I got my BA in History and Political Science from SUNY in 2005. I knew that I wouldn't get a job with a liberal arts degree from a state school so I enrolled in the MPA program there (sort of by accident). I interned with the Department of State and New York State during grad school and finished my MPA in Fall 2007. I was extremely fortunate to land a job with New York State in the beginning of 2008. It's not the most interesting job in the world, but the pay is very decent and the benefits are excellent. The only drawback is the 3 hour round trip commute - I moved back in with my parents last year at 27 so that I could stop treading water and start saving. I know that this experience is a little different from the other ones in your blog but I would be more than happy to speak to you if you would like. Thank you very much for your time and keep up the excellent work!!

Enjoy your weekend,

Jennifer Howard

Nine months before I graduated I was really panicking because I didn't have a job lined up and I was interning for New York State, but I knew that I didn't want to stay in Albany. My boss—she was amazing, she helped me so much—her husband was big in the Department of XX * for New York. So he was actually giving my resume out to different agencies in New York State. When I graduated and still didn't have a job, my boss asked me what I was gonna do and I was like, oh, I'll go back to waitressing or substitute teaching and she said no, you can stay here until you get a job. I did that for about a month and then in January 2008, I got a call to interview for my current job

I work for New York State, it's the Office of the ZZ* at MTI, which is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, I'm the senior auditor there. I didn't apply for this job but was actually on another job interview and I got a call from this woman and she asked me to come in for an interview at the Office of the ZZ, so I was kind of just blind-sided. She laughs. I was really excited about the idea of working for New York State, but I didn't really know what an auditor was.

I interviewed at the job on January 7th, which is my birthday and I started working on February 4th of 2008. I was a staff auditor and I kind of didn't really know about auditing and the person I was working with didn't teach me anything and so I wasn't that happy with my job. I felt like I wasn't doing anything, but actually my boss apologized that I had to work with this person and assigned me to work with other people. And I actually started to really get into my job. I worked with a variety of people and I felt like I was really accomplishing something.

At the same time I felt like a lot of people at my job were kind of disgruntled, literally haven't gotten raises in 3 years, and they felt like things were really stagnant. So I kind of felt like I wasn't going to go anywhere, but I really liked my job, so I didn't know what to do. I actually started looking for other jobs, but then someone said, well, why don't you just talk to your boss?

I went into her office, this was in the fall of last year and I told her that I really liked the job and I could see myself doing it for a long time, but I was concerned that it wasn't going anywhere, that things never really change at the ZZ and I told her that I wanted to take on more responsibility. I felt like it was time. I had been there three years. She said that she wanted to promote me, but it was hard with the finances with the State. So I didn't really expect anything else to come out of it. But then, actually in January, I got promoted. I was so happy I was crying.

I'm a performance auditor. When there's a complaint or when we find out something is going wrong within one of—you’re from out west, so I’ll just tell you a little bit about MTI. They run all the subways, trains, buses—all the transportation in New York City and the suburbs. We go out and we analyze the problems, we find out what's wrong, we make recommendations, we bring it to the agency and hopefully they'll act on it. At first, I was just kind of writing memos, I was doing data analysis, but I wasn't really getting into the big picture. When I began working with more competent people, I really began to see how things worked together. I would get an idea of what was going on and I'd ask my own questions. It just got exciting because I could see what we were accomplishing.

I asked Jennifer how she thinks the recession has impacted her and her future.

They're talking of consolidating our office into the bigger ZZ Office of State and they're only keeping 10% of the workforce. So there's been rumors about that. I don't see a lot of promotions within my agency. Things have been really stale since I've been there. I've been very lucky that I got promoted. I don't see anyone hiring. And I don't know if that's ever going to change because it's—I don't really think the economy is going to get much better.

I hope my pension's around when I retire. She laughs.

A big part of why I want[ed] to work in government is for the benefits and for the retirement and right now there's a lot going on in New York about being able to fund the pension and they're trying to change it for people that are coming into the State now.

I feel like I'm one of the lucky few. I feel very fortunate. I don't think the economy really affected me. My friends—they're all super bright, great people. They all went to college and it's just, I'm the only one with my master's, it seems like a lot of my friends are waitresses or they work in retail.

I think it has a lot to do with luck. Because I had people that really helped me out and if I didn't I don't know where I'd be. I do know that I worked really hard, I'm a good worker, I'm easy to get along with, but at the same time, I know that there are lots of people like me. I went to school with a lot of smart people and I just feel like I—It's not that I didn't work for it but if I didn't have the people backing me that did, if I didn't have my internship and my boss there helping me out, her and her husband, I don't know where I'd be. So that was lucky, just, you know, working for them, meeting them.

*Department name withheld to protect Jennifer’s anonymity.

Monday, October 3, 2011


Chip, speaking in a soft Southern accent, saw firsthand the cultural and economic changes wrought by the recession on his field. He graduated from the Charleston School of Law in the spring of 2009.

My dad always told us whatever you do as far as your job, be self-sufficient so that you're not relying on somebody else. And for me, attorney seemed like a good idea. And it's always been, for the most part, recession proof because people are always going to be suing people. When I started that was still how it was. By the time I get to the end [of law school] it's a completely different atmosphere. It was kind of hard to grasp the change in the atmosphere, because with the way things have been over the last few years that theory that lawyers are recession-proof has gone by the wayside.

When you finish your first semester of law school, you start looking for jobs and start some summer clerkships and then by your second year you're working for firms that are probably going to hire you after [you graduate]. But, halfway through law school, for me, was in '07 when things really started to get bad. At the firm where I was [clerking] in 2006, for example, we had a softball team for the summer clerks. The first year or so, after the softball game, they would take the entire team and all of the people in the firm and their family and we would go to a restaurant, bar, whatever and the firm would pay for food and drinks. By that second or third season it turned into, well, we're going to pay two hundred dollars and everything after that, you're on your own. And then by the third year it was, ok, we're going to buy dinner and that's it and only for the people that are involved with the team. And by the last year, we weren't [laughs] even going anywhere after the game. You know? And the same thing with work functions and parties. In the early days we'd have a happy hour every month. That kind of stuff started to disappear and not be around. And not happen as frequently or not as extravagantly as it did early on.

I guess it's kind of a domino effect. People in general have less money which means they're less inclined to sue because it's almost an investment. It's risky most of the time to sue somebody because you're most likely going to be putting up a lot of money and there's a chance that you may get nothing back out of it. Just like everything else, people were less inclined to spend the money on it. When less people are spending money on lawyers, then [there is] less work for lawyers. Which means there's less lawyers getting hired because there's plenty of attorneys already out there that are already working and there's barely enough work for them to bill for as it is. They don't need to hire new attorneys when they don't have the work for them to be doing to bill people for.

[At the time], they were hiring people when they graduated and then asking them to not start working for several months because they didn't have the money to pay them. So that's kind of how it was, even the people that had jobs didn't really have a job yet. They were just sitting around waiting.

I always wanted to be a lawyer, it was never just I want to make money, it's, that's what I want to do, be a lawyer. So, I didn't regret my decision [to go to law school], it was just the fact that what do I do now, I have no money. I'm not making any money—when I started school everybody was making great money, people were coming out of school making 70-80 thousand. But, that's obviously not been the case as of late for the majority of people graduating—no more looking for something you want to specialize in or looking for what your bread and butter job would be—just find a job doing something. And the majority of that [means] accepting or applying for a job that is going to pay you something in the 30 to 40 thousand dollar range. You know, everybody goes to law school and dreams about six figure salaries, it's quite a shock for most people.

Well, I didn't have a job when I finished [law school], so I spent my days job-searching and trying to network, went to this person and that person, this politically connected person or that person, whoever, to try to make a contact, to find somebody who could give me a hand just to get a job. I did a lot of that. And applying in general, just for jobs, meeting with people... I was just living off of loans at that point, so I didn't have very much money. I started looking for jobs, just doing anything that would pay me and not just law jobs. Most people I know were looking just for paralegal jobs. People with law degrees that had passed the bar exam were looking for paralegal jobs just to get something that gave them experience. And no firm wants to hire an attorney for a paralegal position because they don't want to pay you that much and they also know that you're eventually going to leave, because your ultimate goal is to be an attorney. It's, you know, I want to be an attorney and have that job, making a lot of money and then it becomes I just want to get a job as an attorney making minimum salary 30 to 40 thousand and then it drops to, ok I'll take a paralegal position just to get experience and then the next thing you know you're looking at jobs that just aren't even in the legal field. I ended up taking a job in this time share type thing, but it was—I took a job doing that for about a month or so, I just couldn't keep doing it. That's kind of what I got reduced to [laughs] eight dollars an hour, but that was all I could find.

Then I started working for the local social league, sports league, with dodgeball and kickball and stuff like that. I was officiating two nights a week, making twenty or thirty dollars a night. That was the only other thing that I did that got me any kind of money while I was still looking for jobs.

I was about to move home and move in with my parents, because I was down to maybe about $1000 left as far as savings and I couldn't keep paying rent and I didn't have any other way to make money other than the 60 bucks a week doing the dodgeball refing. A friend of mine had a business that had just taken over managing and he didn't want me to have to move back home. He wanted me to come work for him, kind of as a receptionist and right hand man while he was getting everything off the ground with his new office. So I came and worked for him for about a month, but he had to have somebody more permanent come in and I was going to have to get out of the way. Right about when that was going to happen I got the job offer for the job I have now. I ended up taking the job because there was no other options and it was an attorney job.

I'm an attorney for the Social Security administration. Basically, when people have disability benefit claims, they can have hearings in front of a judge and after the judge hears the case they decide whether they do or don't want to give the person benefits whether they think they're disabled or not and I write the opinion for the judge that issues the final decision. I write the decision for him.

It's not what I want to do, just because, I mean, I just sit in an office, I sit at a computer and type all day. Actually, yesterday I was handling a private matter for somebody, doing a trial—that's what I want to do. That’s what I've always wanted to do. Seeing where I am now and what I'm doing it just isn't what I want to do, but the job is stable and the pay is pretty good. So on one hand, I'm just happy that I'm employed. But on the other hand, I'm—it's just not what I expected.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Hilary was enthusiastic and cheerfully garrulous when I spoke with her. It was January 2011, a short month after she had earned her master’s degree in Geography from San Francisco State. She also has two B.A.’s from U.C. Berkeley—one each in English and Geography.

I had been working at a restaurant and not being very mentally stimulated. I felt like I wasn't really doing anything especially productive. I wanted to make a change in my life and I felt like having a higher degree is never something that you regret. Having that knowledge in your head is never something that you regret. [The master’s program] sounded like a really structured and interesting environment where I would be surrounded by other people who were interested in things and wanted to talk about things. I was really looking for some nerd hang out time. I mean, I don't think that I—I definitely didn't go back to school so that I would get a specific job.

At that point, also, I'd taken an internship with the City and County of San Francisco for one of the Supervisors' Offices. I really enjoyed what I was doing, but I definitely felt like if I continued I would need to have a master’s.

Now that I have this degree, as of not that long ago, I feel like it has opened up jobs— that I meet the minimum requirements. So I feel like there's more opportunity for me out there. Now I'm being faced with the fact that I might be eligible [for a] position, but there's a lot more people with a lot more experience than I have. When I'm looking for jobs, I'm the least qualified person they could have, because everybody has to have that degree and everybody that's older than me has already been working. The pool is bigger for the jobs that I can get, but I'm a smaller fish.

I wake up and I spend about two hours online looking for jobs, looking over my email—and then I'll do that again for maybe another hour later in the afternoon. If I find something that I like, which happens, twice a week maybe, a job that I'm interested in and think that I'd be good at, then that's probably a two hour commitment to writing a cover letter and getting the resume submitted.

I've been looking since before I graduated even, and towards the end of the year I definitely noticed that there weren't as many jobs, which makes sense. And then as soon as January started, I saw a lot more. So I feel like there's jobs out there.

I wouldn't take a job that seemed "alright." I wouldn't take a $40,000 a year job working as reception at Gap, where it would be just good enough that it might be difficult to leave later. I rather take something like a restaurant job so that I could easily walk away. It would be such a flexible schedule, I also could be doing things like working for the City as an intern or working for a nonprofit. I just would rather do that than taking a full time job that's gonna stagnate right there. Does that make sense? Like a restaurant job seems like it might definitely be a means to an end at this point, because it allows me to work in the other capacity. Getting me the experience.

Part of me worries because other people are going back to school. Nobody can get a job and people are getting laid off and may not be able to get a job as quickly. [They] are going back to school. So I'm a little worried that in the future there might be more competition. I can't exactly afford to, for instance, just get a restaurant job again and not do anything [in my field]. I feel like I have all of the schooling that I need, I feel like I need the physical experience behind me.

Right now I work at the Food Bank on Friday mornings, at the church up the street. I've been doing that for probably four months.

I ask her if she’s always volunteered.

Yeah, I've always done something. I mean, I wouldn't say I'm seeking out and have to have a volunteer job, but something just sort of seems to come up. I don't know. Just seems to come up and I'm like, yeah, why wouldn't I do that? I have time. Especially now, I'm not doing anything for many hours of the day, so if I can help somebody else, why wouldn't I? You know, it gets me out of the house to meet's kind of fun.

Basically I want to go into government work, so I feel like the recession has hit that a little bit later and I think it will last longer, but it seems to me from what I hear on the radio, it seems like things are doing better all of the time.1 I don't know, even the government seems like it's hiring and there's enough positions and now I feel like I'm qualified enough. I feel pretty good about it.

I actually applied for what I would've considered my dream job. It was a nontechnical planning position for neighborhood design through the [City’s] planning department. I applied for that at the beginning of December.

This is exactly what I'm really interested in and when I wrote that cover letter I felt like everything about my entire background really channels up to this one job. I never felt more like I was the perfect person for this position. Unless they're looking for someone with experience that isn't fresh out of school. Maybe people really fresh out of school are really annoying, I don't know. The man who is doing the hiring looks really nice though, I don't think he'd be annoyed by exuberance. She laughs.

1 Note, this interview was conducted in January 2011.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Andrew graduated with a B.A. in Political Economy from U.C. Berkeley in May 2010. When I spoke with him, I was struck by his poise and his intelligence. It was hard to remember that he was fresh out of school and not a seasoned economist.

I don't feel like my personal struggle in this job market has been particularly noteworthy or particularly interesting, really. Things have slowed down a little for me, but I still feel pretty confident. For my job searching ego, it’s kind of a nice time in a way, because you always have the built in excuse that it's not me, it's the economy. And I kind of believe that. I half-heartedly believe that it's really just a tough time for everyone.

I feel like when I really jumped into looking at research type of jobs in environmental-type areas and development studies, I quickly found that I was under qualified. And the applications that I did put in for those type of positions, I was told that my application was competing against people with graduate degrees, people with, in some cases, PhDs and so I have had to be a little more flexible. In terms of qualifications, I haven't found any truly entry level positions that I would be content working in, that would be a challenge. The process has been much more drawn out and kind of frustrating in the sense that I thought my education would prepare me better to find something that I want to do when I've kind of found that has not necessarily been the case.

I've been kind of selective, which I realize isn't the best strategy, in this economy, but I don't want to settle for something that doesn't feel like it's moving my career forward. I hear back from somewhere around half of the companies I apply for—most of those being just form letters telling me that while they're very much impressed with my qualifications, I'm not quite what they're looking for.

There's just so many organizations that want you to have some experience. My friend described to me a recent job symposium held by UC Berkeley and the topic was how to get into the field of development studies and the students were asking "How can we get the jobs?" and the people were saying, "Well, you need a little bit of experience."
"Well, how can we get the experience?"
"Well, you kind of need to get a job."
It seems tough to break into a job that will give you a decent amount of responsibility when the only things I've held before are internships and student jobs. I worked almost all the time when I was in school. I worked at the student newspaper, first selling ads, then as, kind of an HR person, worked as a camp counselor one summer, I was a security monitor at the dorms, and I worked in the grad school of journalism doing administrative support sort of stuff, had an internship at the State Department in Taiwan…I feel like I have not a lot of real job experience, but I'm not inexperienced. I've definitely done all of the jobs where you have a certain level of administrative competency and I think I've proven that beyond a shadow of a doubt. It's just the research qualifications, the more kind of numbers-heavy stuff that they don't necessarily see jumping out of my resume.

I think [the economy] has impacted my job search in the sense that I'm competing against more qualified candidates who are, you know, looking down, looking at a lower level of positions than they might in a better economy. I think the competition is tougher. Also, a good position will generate so much interest that I think the people reading applications are overwhelmed. A lot of times I don't hear back from people. I try to follow-up but don't get anywhere with it.

I applied to a pretty small consulting firm up in Seattle and I called like a week and half afterwards to check up on my application. I spoke to a very nice woman who is handling all the incoming apps and she said they had over 3000 applicants this year. Honestly, the company must've been under or around 50 employees. That's something like 25 a day. That put it in perspective for me. To be facing that much competition, I didn't know—they didn't have any way, I can't even imagine how they would process all of those and give everybody a fair look, much less pick mine out of the mass of qualified candidates. I knew that one wasn't gonna work out. I couldn't beat myself up too much about that, given the numbers I was facing.

I feel as if once I get that first job and I can challenge myself, I can prove myself, then, if in a couple of years the economy's better then the recession really won't have had too adverse an effect on my career. The only trouble is, that in all of my interviews companies have asked me, “What have you been doing with your time since you graduated?” I tell them that I've been traveling, job searching, reading, spending time with my family, but, you know, I haven't been doing anything to move my career or my skills forward, per se. If this job search drags on much longer that could really hurt me.

I did have an interview earlier this week. And I thought it went pretty well. I think I'll hear back today on whether or not they want me to come back for a second interview. They're a firm called XX Associates,* they do health care and pharmaceutical consulting and it would be a good first job. Probably not the sector or area that I'd really envisioned going into, per se. But, you know, a fascinating topic area nonetheless. My main areas that I'd love to do research in are development and development economics. I have a friend, a former classmate from UC Berkeley, who works for XX Associates and she encouraged me to apply. I figured it couldn't hurt given the rather sorry state of my job search. So I put in an application with her encouragement.

At the end of the day, in whatever job that I end up doing, I want to be able to ask "Is this going to have a positive impact on people's lives?" and hopefully the answer is yes.

*The company’s name has been changed to protect anonymity.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Recession Grads on the Radio! (Part 3)

What? A fantastic story
Where? On Crosscurrents, an award-winning daily news program on 91.7 FM, KALW
When? Monday, July 18th, between 5-5:30 pm*

This is the third installment in a three-part series exploring the experiences of San Francisco Bay Area Recession Grads. In this final piece, we hear the story of one young graduate who is working. Kelly Cha is a graphics delineator for the City of Oakland—a position she earned after interning for the city for over two years. Cha graduated a semester early with a Bachelor’s degree from the prestigious architecture department at U.C. Berkeley.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


I keep hearing that the U.S. is in dire need of engineers—people are desparately looking to fill engineering positions, despite the economic hard times. Apparently, this is true. I spoke with Brian Reeves, a civil engineering major who graduated in 2009 from Santa Clara University with a Bachelor’s degree. He loves his job—and it is exactly what he dreamt of on graduation day.

For the first couple years in school, I saw myself going to design firms to do engineering, but when I graduated I could see myself going into construction.

When I wanted to do design, it was just because that's what I was learning in school and I wanted to do that. Then my first impression of design companies was that the people that worked in them weren't any fun. The companies were all small. I heard that when you go to work for a design company you're not going to get paid a lot and you're not going to get to do design work like you learned in school. You'd be doing detailing, just small parts, not actually doing any of the engineering. Yeah. In construction everybody is, I guess, a little bit more fun to hang out with.

After graduation I hadn't lined up a job and my friends were building a solar house on campus at Santa Clara for a competition. And, my friend told me that I could stay in his apartment while I helped build this house. So I did that. I'd say that if companies were hiring then I probably wouldn't have gone and done this whole [solar] project. I probably would've gotten a job right out of school and begun to work.

During the project I met some representatives from Cupertino Electric, because they were a sponsor of our house and, they offered me an internship, so, I took that. And the internship lasted me about 3 months, and it was a cool experience –my other internships had been with general contractors, so to be working with a sub-contractor was kind of cool to get that other side of the business.

That internship ended in March and I started looking for a job. A lot of going through old contacts, calling companies that I worked for before—they weren't hiring. And a lot of networking through family and through friends. And also going cold to these companies' websites and just puttin' stuff in. Going to career fairs. And, you know, got to a point where, I'd kinda done everything that I could do, maybe after a month or two months and I was just kind of waiting on replies at that point.

The first person that I contacted for a job was my friend Jaden Green who worked for Camden Construction.* Jaden went through the same Civil Engineering program that I went through. She graduated the year before I did. She forwarded my resume on and gave me a good recommendation and it so happened that they were reviewing resumes at that time. I went through other jobs, got a few offers all at the same time, one being Camden.

I was unemployed for about 4 months and started with Camden on July 1st. My job started basically, right on time—I would've had to borrow from my parents if it was any longer.

This is kind of what I was looking for—a construction job in the Bay Area for a bigger company like Camden. So I pretty much got exactly what I was looking for.

I'm a project engineer at the airport. San Francisco airport. And I manage a couple contracts.

If I'd gone straight to work for Camden, by now, I would've been there for a year and a half,—instead I've just been there for half a year. So, I'm that much further behind, I guess, in, you know, growing my bank account and trying to get my life together.

I have responsibilities that are similar to people that have been with the company a long time. 5, 6, 7 years. Yeah and they let you get into that right away. It's nice having responsibilities. When I was an intern at places—they're not going to give you a whole lot of responsibility. Typically you just get a task, I would do the task and then I would take it to them and get my next task. But now I have my own thing where I know what I'm wanting to do and I make my own work. And nobody really 100% oversees what I'm doing. You know, down to every detail. That's nice. To have that kind of responsibility. A little stressful sometimes, but when you get everything done and you clear your plate off it's pretty rewarding.

*Both the name of the company Brian works for and the name of his friend who also works there have been changed.