COLUMBIA — Last month, 23-year-old Kyla Winn traded in her low-paying position at a Columbia day care for the prospect of finding a job as a graduated pre-med student back home in Kansas City.
"I apply for 25 jobs a day, five days a week," said Winn, who graduated from MU in December 2008 with a bachelor's degree in biological sciences. “At this point, I’m willing to do almost any type of job until I can get some type of income. Every month bills are due, so some income is better than none.”
The "Summer 2009 Salary Survey" from the National Association of Colleges and Employers compiles data from college and university career centers nationwide and includes 70 professional disciplines. Among its findings:
- Sociology majors were worst hit this year, with the average starting salary down by 4.4 percent to $33,280.
- Business administration majors, whose offers, according to the report, "in many cases came from retail/wholesale firms," had their average starting salaries decreased by 2.1 percent, to $44,944.
- Engineering had the highest salary increase, 3.7 percent, with recent grads getting, on average, $59,254 nationally.
- Starting salaries for liberal arts majors, now at $36,175 nationally, fell by about 1 percent.
Winn is among the new graduates struggling in a down economy to find jobs related to their areas of study — or any job at all. National data show that, on average, starting salaries for those who do find jobs in their field are close to what they were last year.
Winn said she has applied for numerous biological lab positions along with minimum-wage jobs in food services and clerical work. Over and over, she has been told she is overqualified or lacks experience. “Because I have only a year of lab experience and not two-to-three (years) or three-to-five (years) that most of those positions require, there are applicants out there who are more qualified than me,” she said.
“I worked my way all through school, and I couldn’t just volunteer for a lab because it wouldn’t pay you," said Winn, who is the first in her family to go to college. "I had to pay off my school bills, so I worked just as much as I was in class for the whole four years in college.”
“Maybe before the recession, people who went to college could potentially get better jobs, but now we are competing with people who have experience and not education,” she said.
Although 2009 numbers from the National Bureau of Labor Statistics are not available yet for 16- to 24-year-olds, the unemployment rate in that age range in 2008 was almost 13 percent — 2.5 percentage points higher than in 2007. The recession officially started Dec. 1, 2007, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. In August 2009, the overall unemployment rate was 9.7 percent, up 0.3 percentage points from July, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Wayne Brekhus, an associate professor at MU who specializes in sociology of culture and identity, tends to look at the poor labor market situation through the lens of the sociology of failure. "We are going to see a lot more people failing to find a job partly not because of mistakes they are making but because the opportunities aren’t there," he said.
At times of economic instability, Brekhus said, people tend to see their mistakes as personal failures, whereas in reality those are "structural failures" and not their fault. "People see their individual successes as all their own doing when, in fact, a lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Job match probability down, not zero
Brad Hershbein, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan who studies the effect of recessions on careers, said that in the long run, graduates most affected by the recession include those with advanced degrees, particularly in law and business.
“The higher up the education ladder you are, the more important that first job is in terms of predicting your career advancements and promotions in the next 10 or 15 years," Hershbein said. "If you can’t get a really good job right out of college, it really stays with you in terms of the impact."
Amanda Nell, an MU Career Center coordinator, said salaries for recent college graduates are holding fairly steady. "The ability to negotiate salaries is now maybe more limited, but overall earnings specifically for college graduates has not taken a substantial hit," she said, commenting on a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
The "Summer 2009 Salary Survey" found that this year's college graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn on average under 1 percent less than their peers did in 2008. The average starting salary for this year’s graduates now stands at $49,307 nationally, which is $386 less than last year.
Joseph Haslag, an MU economics professor, said it's typical for wages to fall in a recession and to rise when the economy is booming. He said near-term chances for recent graduates to find secure jobs are down, but there are still options available.
"The probability of them finding a job match is lowered," Haslag said, "but it doesn't mean that it's zero."
From her daily interactions with MU students and e-mail communication with recent alumni, Nell has noticed that job seekers "are being a little bit more savvy and more adaptable." For example, she said, the online traffic of MU alumni on hiremizzoutigers.com has doubled in the last calendar year.
"Alumni made up about 12 percent of the active job seekers on that Web site, and this figure jumped to 25 percent this year," Nell said.
Economy's future uncertain, but keep hope
After having applied for 10 positions in her career field, Sara Konzak, 22, moved back home to Kansas City and took a job as a bank teller.
“I didn’t think it would be as hard as it was to find a job," said Konzak, who graduated from MU in December 2008 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. "I know times are hard without having a job; something is always better than nothing.”
Konzak feels fortunate to have her job, even though it pays close to half as much as one she interviewed for with the Missouri Department of Social Services. Her observation is that recent college graduates are temporarily facing unemployment or job mismatch not because they are unqualified or bad candidates but because that's how the economy is right now.
"There are jobs available, but employers have to give them to the most qualified people," Konzak said. "It’s hard to hear that, but you might not be that person.”
Konzak said that within the next five years, she would like to pursue a master’s degree in psychology. She hopes that by then, the economy will have picked up and she can job-hunt again with a different result.
For Nell, being a college graduate in a recession does not appear to be a complete disadvantage. "Your youth, your vitality, your enthusiasm, your adaptability are all in your favor," she said. "It's just easy to focus on doom and gloom."
"Recessions are not death sentences," Haslag said. "They are temporary setbacks in terms of people being able to acquire a job match."
Joan Hermsen, an MU associate professor in sociology who studies work and labor markets, said young adults are facing a challenging set of conditions in the labor market.
"We don't know right now if the impact of this recession will be lasting and broad-scale, and whether it'll make today's generation of high school and college graduates different from their predecessors," Hermsen said.