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

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Bobby graduated from the University of Texas, Austin with a degree in Geography in the summer of 2008.  Perhaps atypical of recession grads, he already had a job upon graduation—which he willingly gave up in an ambitious gambit to further his career and deepen his experience.  Things didn’t pan out according to plan, as they seldom do.

I figured I would do as much as I could as an undergrad, working towards advancing a career in urban planning. I'd already established myself, at least locally, in planning having taken an unpaid internship which turned into a paid position, before I ever graduated.  So to that extent I felt like I had already started my career in planning.  My plan was to work for a couple of years and apply to a couple of graduate level programs in planning. And so when I finished, I was less focused on the immediate job search because I had a job and it was relevant. And so I wasn't as nervous. I had a lot of friends who were I think, a little lost. I think the advantage for me was that I returned to school when I was older and I had job experience.  I was in my late 20s, I knew a lot of individuals who were graduating with me in their early 20s and I think they were a little bit more nervous and the outlook for job prospects seemed a little bit more daunting to them.  And for me I just felt like I was in a good place and I liked what I was doing.

I'd finally determined more or less what I wanted to do with my life and it took me several years to go back and get my undergraduate degree. So I kind of wanted to like, I'm in school mode, might as well knock off the grad degree, right?  And aside from that, I just felt like career-wise I wouldn’t be able to advance without a graduate degree to a level that I was comfortable with anyways.  It just seemed like a foregone conclusion that I would have to go to graduate school.  He laughs.  And  four years later I still haven't gone.

I moved to the [San Francisco] Bay Area, and then I became much more concerned with the practical applications of my undegraduate degree and working for a living.  My headspace changed from being like where am I going to go to grad school to like, oh shit, I have to pay my rent.  It's not a cheap place to live.  I had planned to move [to the San Francisco Bay Area], because I thought it would be a good place to hang out for a year or two before I sent off grad school applications. It was kind of, from where I sat in Austin, perceived by myself and colleagues as kind of a planning mecca—progressive as far as local government and regional planning and also a lot of planning organizations had either headquarters or big offices in San Francisco.  So it just made sense. Right before I graduated I came out here* and set up some informational interviews and they went really, really well.  They pretty much told me, if you were to move here now, we would hire you immediately.  The level at which they would hire me their hope would be that I would only be there for a year or two and move on to grad school. And so that excited me.  And so I planned to move here, early 2009.

Then I met a girl. And she moved out here soon after we met. And I followed her, so my time line changed a little bit and I got here a little bit sooner than I thought I would.  That was right around the time that the mortgage-backed securities crisis hit full bloom.  I don't know if it was just late getting to me or late getting to Texas, as far as the visible impacts on local economies and job availability, but I just felt like, I'll be fine, I'll figure something out, I’m smart, I'm resourceful.  And that wasn't the case when I moved here.  It was much more difficult to find any work, let alone relevant planning work.

I just didn't have any fear or reservation about moving to a new city without a job.  I came with a few thousand dollars and I was like, I'll figure something out, you know? So a typical day here quickly became—he laughs—it was the inside of coffee shops.   I was poor, I was miserable.  I lived in a kind of remote part of San Francisco that a lot of people forget exists and a lot of people have never been to, Bayview/Hunter's Point.  Rougher edge of town and much more industrial.  There’s only one coffeeshop near me and I didn't want pay to take the train or the bus further into the City.  And I just thought that I'd be distracted anyways, so I spent a lot of time in one particular cafe near my place.  So I felt a little isolated.  I didn't see a lot of people during the day.  I spent a lot of time online, just kind of perusing job sites and my first couple of weeks I sent a lot of cold call emails soliciting informational interviews or just straight up job interviews. I did that for several months. I just canvassed people I thought I might want to work with.  At first, my primary concern was:  I need to find a job that's relevant, because I can't interrupt this path I'm on.  I went back to school, I did well, I got a job related to what I want to do and I moved out here to kind of maintain that path until I go to grad school in that relevant area.  I can't interrupt that.  I can't go work in a coffeeshop for two years before I apply to grad school—I didn't want that to happen.  I just wanted some sense of relevancy before I applied to grad school. And so I thought, surely I'll find something, and if I can't, if there's absolutely nothing that falls under that umbrella, then surely I can find some job, any job, anything to pay my rent while I look for other work. And neither of those things happened for a long time.  And that was scary because I didn't think it would be that bad.  And it was.  It was frightening.

The first couple of months that I was here, not a lot happened on the job front.   I actually got very, very, very little in the way of return emails.  I didn't get a lot of people to respond at all. But one of the few who returned an unsolicited email that I had sent responded the same day.   Which was shocking and awesome.  He said I don't have any work for you but I'm more than willing to meet you for coffee.  We can talk and you can tell me about yourself and your career goals.  So that was exciting. That was uplifting.  It was good.  And it was much different from the experiences that I had up to that point. So we met up, he told me—this I thought was fascinating—he said, "I get unsolicited emails from recent graduates every day, every day, a lot of them are recent grad school graduates from the City and Regional Planning program at Berkeley and then some from all over northern California.  But the reason I responded to your's and agreed to meet with you was because your's was thoughtful and well-written and didn't contain any spelling or grammatical errors.  A lot of these kids are churning out letters to prospective employers and they're just churning them out, just trying to get them out," and to my own credit, I actually did spend a lot of time on that email that I sent to him, because this wasn't just me wanting to get a job.  I actually really wanted to work with him and for him and I cared about what he was doing and I thought he would be a great person to learn from.

It was a great conversation and it ended with him saying essentially, hey, look, I want you to send me a writing sample and forget I exist and I'll call you sometime if I ever need anything, but I don't have anything for you. So, I sent my writing sample and forgot about it and about a week later he called me and said, “Hey, I have something for you,” so I was like, AWESOME, because I was really broke and really hungry.  So he gave me a small research/writing type gig.  It was only 15 or 20 hours and I did that and then it was over.  A few weeks later he called me again and said, “Hey I have something else for you.”  And in the meantime, I'm not working at all.  Living off of savings and the generous nature of my family.  Little by little he gave me a little bit more work and then, meanwhile, because I reached a new level of desperation and not only was I not looking for relevant work I was looking for ANY work and at that point I was looking for temp work as well.  And I wasn't even getting called back from temp employment agencies or account managers at temp employment agencies, which was shocking to me.

[The recession] sent local economies into a catatonic shock—everything seemed to stop.  Best case scenario was that organizations were not hiring.  Worst case scenario was that they were letting people go.  It's two sides of the same coin, on one side you have this static population applying for jobs, but every day more people are added to that so it's no longer static.  All of a sudden it's like that pool of people you're competing with, it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and the jobs are getting fewer and fewer.  There was that sense of oh my god I'm never going to find a job.  As time went on you heard more and more stories of people getting laid off. But to some degree, after a while, it's almost validating, because it's like, shit, it's not just me who can't find a job-- the problem isn't just mine.   So there's some sense of camaraderie when you meet people who are really intelligent and very capable and maybe went to a better school than you did, maybe even have more work experience and are like fuck, I don't know how I'm going to make rent this month.  Awesome, neither do I. So you don't feel like a complete failure.

 I finally got a temp offer for a gig in the legal group at Wells Fargo.  And that's where I spent the next, god, almost a year, I guess.  I was there for a while—a  temporary position as a paralegal in a Wells Fargo legal division working mortgage-backed securities which was a pretty interesting thing to…I don't know if there's, if that would qualify as literal irony, but the fact that mortgage-backed securities contributed so much to the failed economy and me not having a job, my first job was working to defend a bank against suits being called against them in mortgage-backed securities.  So that was precious.

Because it was a temp position—it could end any week.  And it ended with them offering me full time employment and I said, "No," at that point I was miserable being there.  It wasn't at all what I wanted to do. It was a very generous salary and benefits and everything and I said no.

I left my job despite the economic climate, because I was ok being with hungry and poor again, so long as I went back to the path that I originally set out.   It was more important to me that I do something aligned with my goals—my goal was never just to live in San Francisco.  And that's all I was doing, I was living in San Francisco, I was making enough money to make rent, that wasn't an end in and of itself.  My goal was to set myself up for success in my career.  And so long as I wasn't doing that, there was no point in me being here.  As much as I love the city, I was like, I'm going to give this one last shot.  

I took an unpaid internship more closely aligned to my long term career goals.  That was kind of my entre into the social justice world and policy at a local level with a focus on equity.  And that set me off on a completely different path.   I no longer have any aspirations of becoming an urban planner or going to a graduate program in planning.  I'm much more focused on equity and on using public health as a currency to effect change.  It's a very salient topic and a very pervasive way of talking about poverty without having to talk about poverty.  It's something that people understand.  It's something that speaks to people.  I think it's a fantastic way of affecting change. Policy and public health just makes sense to me.

So my job now is…I'm a policy associate with a government public health agency at the county level.  I was brought on after my internship [and am] essentially overseeing both the reactive policy work that comes to public health agencies—so any requests to provide testimony, write letters of support for community partners or allies for something that is aligned with our health equity goals—and then our more proactive policy work.  I think part of the reason that I was hired was that I had that urban planning multi-disciplinary background, but I had also gained a tremendous amount of experience in my short time at the [internship] focusing on equity and helping to build a coalition. I think that marriage of government work and coalition building and social justice really helped advance my resume to the top of the pile.

To some extent the economic crisis that we've been experiencing over the last few years has certainly impacted my career path and my goals.  Seeing how some communities were taken advantage of during the foreclosure crisis  and wanting to do something about it, that's certainly changed my career goals. But a lot of it has also just been me growing up.  You know what I mean? And they happened in parallels, I think.  To some extent I would even say that it's a happy accident. I mean, it's unfortunate that so many people were hurt, myself included, in the last few years, but it's given me a sense of purpose and sometimes bad shit needs to happen for people to wake up.  And so I love how I arrived where I'm at and I'm older now, so I don't want to experience any sort of like severe change like that on that scale again, but, you know, I might, and you just have to adapt.

*The San Francisco Bay Area.        

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Researcher Check-In

I know it's been a long time since there's been activity on this blog, but rest assured, research and analysis continues.  In the fall of last year, I obtained full time employment and this past April I got married--both of which ended up dragging me away from Recession Grads.  The good news is that I am back and a new recession grad interview will be up shortly.  Stay tuned!