The Forgotten Graduates of the Recession

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Mollie Thompson was a top student in her class at the University of Minnesota, but you might not know it from the limited success she’s had finding work after college.

Since she graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science policy, Thompson has yet to find a full-time job, let alone a position that provides basic health and retirement benefits. Instead, the best position she has landed so far was a part-time paid internship that lasted the better part of her first year out of school, followed a few months later by another part-time gig, this time working as a barista at a local coffee shop in Minneapolis.

“It’s really been a deflating experience,” Thompson told MainStreet. “I worked as a barista when I was in high school, and it just felt like a step backwards to work as a barista again after college.”

Several dozen job applications later, Thompson is still stuck working at the coffee shop, a fact that is all the more surprising to her because she never had much difficulty finding work in college.  In fact, she has worked an incredible range of jobs on and off, starting from the age of 14 when she scooped ice cream at a 50s-style restaurant near her home in southeastern Wisconsin, and continuing through high school as she spent summers babysitting, working as a secretary at a car dealership or serving as a kennel attendant at a veterinary clinic, all while keeping up her grades. She thought her degree would only make her more competitive in the labor market, but she has yet to experience the professional benefits of having pursued higher education.

Like many students who graduated during the recession years, Thompson has struggled to find her footing in a particularly treacherous job market. In April 2007, shortly before the recession began, the unemployment rate for college graduates under the age of 25 was just 3.7%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Two years later, as Thompson was gearing up to enter the labor market, that number had shot up to 8%, and the employment situation only worsened from there.

Nearly a tenth of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed throughout 2010, a separate report found, as were nearly a quarter of high school graduates, despite the fact that the recession had officially ended more than a year before, and the overall job market was gradually improving. In fact, if these reports factored in students who settled for working menial positions unrelated to their desired profession, that number might be much higher, as one recent survey from Adecco found that 43% of students who graduated between 2008-2010 are currently working jobs that do not require a four-year degree.

Ultimately, college students faced a unique set of obstacles for employment: Companies remained hesitant about expanding their payrolls, and those jobs that were created were primarily in lower paying professions like the retail and food services industries. To make matters worse, when students do find that dream job posting, they must compete not just against fellow unemployed graduates, but also older workers who are desperate even for entry-level work.

This year, at long last, a series of surveys and reports have predicted a significantly improved hiring outlook for recent college graduates.

One survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that companies across the country plan to hire 19% more new college graduates this year than in 2010, marking the strongest year-over-year hiring growth for graduates since the beginning of the recession. Likewise, a Careerbuilder survey found that employers aren’t just planning to hire more grads but also to pay them higher salaries than the year before.

But as promising as these improvements may be, will this hiring shift actually help students like Thompson who have already been out of school and underemployed for multiple years, or is it too late for this group of recession graduates?