Forget About a Dream Job, College Grads Just Taking Whatever They Can

As the economy continues to flounder, a growing number of college grads are shifting their priorities away from forging a career path in their desired field to more immediate demands, such as paying the bills. As a result, many are taking jobs out of college that they never imagined themselves doing and are finding that once they’ve taken that turn, it isn’t so easy to find their way back.

“From late June until now, I’ve probably applied for about 90 positions,” Ramsey Magana, a 22-year-old Chemical Biology graduate from the University of California Berkeley explains. “The call back rate is about 5-10 percent, and that includes yes’s and no’s… Most positions, I never hear back.”

Living with two friends in a small, one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, Magana says he’s grateful that they were willing to house him until he gets on his feet. “If I didn’t have this offer from my friend, I don’t think I would be able to look for the jobs I’m looking for now… because if you’re not in the immediate area, some jobs won’t even call or consider you,” he explains.

As a tech and pharmaceutical hub, San Francisco is an attractive place for job seekers looking to enter the industry, despite the high rent and cost of living.

For Magana, the pressure to find work increased after his job as a research assistant at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety ended last September. It was his only source of income, leaving Magana little choice but to expand his job search beyond the confines of his chosen career.

“I’ve talked to some people who own a restaurant… and the manager at Whole Foods. It’s kind of disheartening to realize that I went to school all this time… but after four years, I still have to consider jobs I was qualified for in high school.”

The latest report from the US Department of Labor shows that unemployment rates among youth have in fact hit an all time low. The August 2011 summary indicates that 48.8 percent of young people were unemployed during the month of July, normally a peak period for youth entering summer jobs.

Noelle Stearns is a 21-year-old graduate from UC Santa Cruz with a major in psychology. Since graduation she’s worked the same job as a hostess for a local restaurant that she says recently went through a downsizing because of the current economic climate. Her own hours were cut from full to part time, meaning she no longer receives the benefits she once did as a full time employee. She’s now looking for a second job to see her through.

“I’m holding back on my next step career-wise… I’m waiting for things to settle down… waiting for equilibrium [in the economy],” she says.

But the wait can be excruciating, especially with student loans hanging over your head. That’s the case for Jennifer Chen, 21, who graduated recently with a B.A. in anthropology from UC Riverside. Since then, she’s had to move back in with her family despite wanting to push forward with a career in public health.

“I’m about $25,000 in debt. With interest, it will go up to $32,000,” she says ruefully.

According to a recent Pew study, average tuition and fees for public universities have tripled from $2199 in 1980-81 to $7605 in 2010-11. As a result, the number of students taking out loans has risen from 52 percent in 1996 to 60 percent in 2008. The average student in 2008 that left school with a bachelor’s degree owed around $23,000.

Student loans nationwide amount to roughly $1 trillion, according to the non-profit College Board. The amount owed on student loans now exceeds the nation’s total credit card debt, a fact that prompted President Obama to announce a debt relief program that would lower monthly payments and forgive remaining debts after 20 years.

But for Chen, that may not be enough. Towering debts drove her to take a managerial position in her hometown of Temple City, something she says she’s ashamed to admit. “I haven’t told anyone because I’m not proud… it’s like a step backwards,” she says.

Falling off the career path after college is becoming an increasingly common trend today. In fact, for some “stepping back” may be the only way to get ahead.

“Until I find a job, grad school is not an option because I have no way of paying the application fees or the fees for the GRE,” Magana explains.

But for Magana and others like him, the danger is that these temporary decisions could carry long-term ramifications. As more and more young people enter into low-skilled and low-paying jobs, their resumes quickly become outdated.

“Internships are key,” says Suzanne Helbig, Assistant Director at UC Berkeley’s Career Center, adding that networking with employers is key to staying on a career path.

Unfortunately, most internships don’t pay, leaving the question of how to attend to bills and other costs unresolved.

With Wednesdays and Sundays off from her managerial job, Chen has decided to apply for a volunteer position at Arcadia Methodist Hospital, which only requires 4 hours a week. Juggling her paid job and an unpaid internship will be a struggle, she says, but it could be her only way back to a career in public health. “I’m willing to squeeze that in,” she said.