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.