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

Friday, February 18, 2011


Valerie lives in a lovely Southern resort town, but speaks with only the minutest trace of an accent. Her resume boasts both an A.A. in criminal justice and a Bachelor’s in Psychology. She has a reputation among her co-workers as being tough as nails, as she said laughingly, “They call me Ginger at work, because they say I have no soul.” In her defense, Valerie’s current job matches neither her talent nor her temperament, which arguably, might do damage to anybody’s soul.

When I first started college I pictured myself doing exactly what I'm doing now. I always thought I wanted to do transitional living. I do case management for a nonprofit transitional living program. I work with homeless, runaway and at-risk youth, ages 16 to 21, helping them with getting jobs and housing and government assistance. Doing life skills. Kind of teaching them to be independent adults. I did a year of Americorps, which is a government program, you work a year in a high needs area. And that was with an outreach center which is part of the organization that I work for now. About six months into that, they offered me my current position. So I was doing full-time Americorps and part-time case management.

It's not at all what I thought it was gonna be.

I don't have the right degree for it first of all, you don't get paid a lot, you don't get benefits, it''s basically being a mom to a whole bunch of kids that don't really want to be in the program. It's just not for me. Some days we're really busy and some days the kids don't want anything to do with me. It just kind of depends. I've got mostly pregnant girls in the program. And so I'm taking them to doctor's appointments, taking them up to apply for Medicaid, apply for food stamps, apply for WIC. Kind of just meeting with them. Sometimes we go out and go to coffee and I listen to their problems, which is hard, because they want to tell you about their problems, but then they don't really want to fix any of the problems. I'm not good at just listening and being like, "It's gonna be ok." If you want to tell me what's wrong, then I'm going to tell you what you need to do to fix it.

I don't think I want to work with kids. She laughs. I work with them now and some of them are great, some of them—I just don't like it. I don't know how to explain why I don't. Some of the kids are great, but the majority of them, I just dread. Just not my personality.

In my job I don't get any benefits. I knew going in that we didn't have any benefits, but what I didn't realize was that—apparently for years—maybe once or twice a year, my boss bring[s] up getting benefits, to get everybody to get kind of excited. And it never happens. And she eventually did it while I was [there], “Would anybody be interested if we were to get health insurance?” And I was like, hell yeah I would be. And then after talking to some of the other employees, they were like, no no no, she says that every year and it never happens. I didn't realize how important benefits were 'cause I'd been under my parents’ plan for so long and it just never really occurred to me. So when I lost them, I'd never not had health insurance. I didn't really realize it was such a big deal until I got sick and had to pay a hundred dollars out of pocket to go to the doctor.

[Also], there's absolutely no where for me to move up. There's only two positions above mine and they're not going to leave and it's also grant funded, so there's no possibility of a raise. We're on a five year grant cycle and the grant’s allotted this much money for my salary and so for the next five years, that's how much I can get paid. And there's not enough room in the budget for me to ever get more. So I've been looking at more corporate jobs, office administration jobs…She laughs. Which I did before and I could easily do again.

I feel like I wasted a lot of time and money. I've got a lot of student loans to be kind of taking a step backwards to something that I did when I first started doing college. When I first started college, I was in an admin position at a law firm. That's something I did while I was in college and now I've spent all of this time and all of this money to do the same thing I was doing without spending all of that time and all of that money. My current job is frustrating because the case manager that they just hired has no degree and no experience, so even the current job I'm doing can be done by somebody that has no degree and no experience. I spent fifty thousand dollars to get this degree to get this job that somebody that didn't go to college, that didn't volunteer for Americorps or do an internship got the same job.

I feel bad complaining, because I do have a job. But then again, I thought, “I've spent all this time and this money and finally I've graduated and I'm not going to have to struggle anymore.” I don't have a savings account. It's kind of paycheck to paycheck. She laughs. I've graduated and absolutely nothing's changed, except for now I'm a little broker because I have to pay student loans back.

I've always worked full time. I worked most of the time even in high school, I've always really like going to work. She laughs. And I've never had problems getting jobs. In my head, in July, as soon as I was done [with school], I was gonna get another job. I was like, I'll start applying, I'll have a new job by August. I just never—I mean I've never had a problem getting jobs. I don't think I've ever really really interviewed for a job even. Like Americorps, I had a friend that did it. So she introduced me. And I got it immediately. I didn't interview for my current position because I was just kind of promoted.

I started looking [for another job] before I graduated. I started out strong. Sending out lots of resumes all over the country. And it's kind of tapered off. She laughs. You know, I haven't gotten any responses. And so I still look. I try to send out at least one a day. Some of the websites are easier, if I already—like Boeing, already has all of my applications, so all I have to do is get on and click apply, apply, apply to whatever comes up. But then some of the other ones you have to have not only a resume and a cover letter, but you have to fill out an online application, which is basically just retyping your resume and that takes at least an hour. It's just really frustrating that you spend all of this time doing cover letters and resumes and then you go to apply for the job and it's just basically retyping everything that's right there on your resume, only to never get called. You know it's hard. You don't want to be pissed off but at the same time, you're like, I've just wasted an hour on something that resulted in not even an interview.

When I started looking I was like, “Oh, well, there's tons of jobs out there, I don't know what they're talking about.” I start applying and I'm not getting any response and then I talked to a friend—I just applied for this job at the company she works for and she's like, “Oh yeah, we had 160 people apply for that, you might have a shot.” I was like, holy crap. She's like, “Oh that's nothing, we had six thousand apply for this other job.” That's when I kind of realized that it's not that there aren't jobs, it's just that there's so many people applying for jobs out there.

Psychology's kind of a broad degree. Nursing, you go to school and you're a nurse. You can't go to school four years for psychology and be a psychologist. There's not really a lot of jobs for a four year psychology degree. If I could pay my student loans, then I would go do my master’s degree.

There's a master’s program not far from here, but the only thing is, if I did the master’s program, I could only work part-time. There's no way I could work part-time and pay all of my bills. But if I could save up enough money to pay my student loans for those two years, then I would go do a master’s degree. And then I also worry, because even if I do do a master’s degree, is it really going to get me anywhere further? You know, an associate’s degree didn't get me anywhere, a bachelor's degree didn't get me anywhere, so am I really gonna take the chance and go do another two years of school and take out all these extra student loans for something that may or may not get me a job?

Friday, February 4, 2011


When I first contacted Jason, he was hesitant to participate and didn’t think he was the “best candidate” for the project or that his experience was “indicative of the zeitgeist.” But as someone who spent six years in the Navy and then started working with a major defense contractor after his tour, I think he represents a very important part of his generation. Jason finished his bachelor’s degree while advancing quickly through the ranks of his civilian job. Currently, he is pursuing an MBA, penning his second novel, and in his ever-diminishing spare time, teaching his daughter how to read.

It's so hard when you come from a background without money to go to school. Or at least that's the perception of a lot of people. You know, I didn't know anything about financial aid. I didn't know how it worked. I didn't even think it was a possibility to go to college. College never really seemed like something I was gonna be able to do.

I joined about 9 months before 9-11, which I think, I really think that a lot of our problems stem from there and from our nation's reaction to those events. But when I joined it was all these kids, Gen Y, the tail of the Gen X, who were essentially saying, "I cannot go to college unless I do something and join the military." And a lot of people were joining at the time. And then 9-11 came. We weren't the ones that joined because of patriotic reasons or whatever, we didn't want to go to war, we wanted college. We wanted school. It was about going to school and bettering yourself. There seemed to be no other way for a lot of people living in rural communities and inner cities.

First and foremost, obviously, was always school, but travel was always a big incentive too. And the fact that I essentially burned a lot of the other bridges that I may have had. He laughs. You get out of high school with bad grades in what I considered a bad economy, without family with means, you don't have a lot of options. And the military was that option. I got to see the world, I got to work in a job that was just completely mind-blowing to someone without any higher education. I ended up taking, what, 70 credits with me from all of my military schools and not all of them got applied towards my degree, but I got a 4.0 on my degree. And then I finished out my degree at an online college, a state college that's based out of Connecticut. They work with military people coming out. And right now I'm enrolled in grad school.

I ask what made him decide to pursue further education.

I read incessantly. I read nonstop. I don't ever want to stop. I want to pursue more education even beyond my masters of business that I'm working on. I want my kids to have the life that I didn't have growing up. I don't want them to have to join the military. I don't want them to have to go through a lot of the things that I did. I didn't have a very good life before the military. I had some very strong people in my family, very good people in my family, good role models, but I was in a bad place before I joined the military. And I gained a lot from it, but I don't want my kids to have to go through any of that.

I think I had kind of a unique educational experience. I'm this 32 year old guy and there's all of these kids, like 23 year olds, with masters degrees, because their parents had a lot more means than mine did. While I was essentially sitting in a crammed little boat in the middle of Asia, getting screamed at every day by officers. I had two years of technical school in the military. Twelve hours a day in front of a desk, learning electronics. I mean, it literally was a terror but it also made me fall in love with the career roles of electronics. They're essentially puzzles, right? And a big electronic system, most people have no idea what it is. It's like the military, unless you've been there, you have no idea.

It's like—I'm not sure if you're familiar with the writing of Robert Heinlein. He wrote Starship Troopers and quite a few other novels, but he had an idea in a lot of his science fiction that they weren't really citizens—it was kinda like the Romans, you didn't really get your citizenship unless you joined the military. And it's almost like that today. You know, if your family doesn't have means, that's pretty much the only way that you can finance a future. Otherwise, you're kind of a prole, right? You're kind of delegated to the working class. I've seen too much of that. I know too many people with too much potential who essentially work factory jobs for their whole lives because they didn't have a lot of opportunity for education. I came from a very, very, small town where everything was manufacturing. That was the expectation from the time you were a little kid was that you would be working in a factory. And I could never see myself fulfilling that role.

I've come a long way. A lot further than I probably thought I would. I worked every single kind of menial labor before I joined the military.

I don't know anybody else that has a stable job. He laughs. And I have a fantastic job and a fantastic company and I'm moving up and I don't know anybody else that's in that sort of situation. I'm in a kind of unique position, my company is defense, right? He laughs. So, we're doing well because of the war. But, technology is changing, the way we wage war is changing. The stuff we're doing now saves soldiers' lives by having unmanned planes in the sky, satellite feed the soldier can look at in their hand—that kind of technology, the kind of position my company is in, is very good. So, as defense goes up and a lot of the rest of the economy goes down, my position and my company have actually been doing rather well.

I do all of the test engineering and the tests for communications systems. When I was in the military that consisted of radios, radars, computer systems, now we test the communications systems that go on the unmanned planes, ground stations, all that stuff. Before I was a technician that was actually running the tests, now I'm an engineer that designs the tests.

I [also] sit in on interviews. And we see so many resumes. I've never seen a job market like this. It's really insane. We're inundated with so many resumes. And, you know what, with all of these people who have been working 20, 30 years in the technical profession, it's really, really hard to hire someone that's fresh out of school. They've got almost no chance. Just because everybody else is downsizing so much. People are coming looking for technician jobs that, just for an example, may have been designing microprocessors through the 80s, through the big tech boom. And if you're fresh out of college, with no experience, how do you compete with that? I was lucky. Before the economy collapsed on everybody I got my job. Defense contractors still hire military, because it's a unique experience you can't really get in college. That's pretty much how it is. If I saw two people, one with military experience who'd actually been doing the job for a number of years and somebody with just a college degree, I would probably hire the military person in a heartbeat. Because the market is flooded with so much experience right now. If you just have a degree there''re really not competitive right now.

Joining the military, every step of the way I tried to do what was right and every step of the way things kind of worked out for me. And most of the people in the military, the friends I made there, didn't end up doing nearly as well. And most of the people I went to school with didn't end up doing nearly as well.

People starting careers now, don’t get pensions anymore. I started in 2007 at my company after I got out of the military and I was right after the pensions. And I even think they were starting to feel the downturn in the economy then. I mean we hadn't had the big housing crisis yet, but—I mean the economy was really weird at the time and a lot of people didn't know why. It seemed strange and shaky to me. Because that was right when everybody cancelled their pensions, some of the stocks were all over the map. So I've taken a lot of hits, but everyone I know has taken bigger hits than I have to their retirement. But I'm so early in my career I don't think that the impact is as big as it would've been, like some—my parents. You know, I've got a lot of relatives that they can't retire now. They would've retired a year or two ago.

My company hasn't had layoffs in probably 20 or 30 years. That's probably a pretty good indicator. We're kind of in a niche market without too many, without any real competitors. And we're in a field that's growing. That again is kind of a unique situation. I don't know anybody else. I mean even in defense, people at Boeing are you know, taking pay cuts every year nowadays. Nobody else is getting raises. Nobody else except for my company is giving raises. But we're getting to the point where we're kind of scared were not going to get one this year.