Daytona Beach Journal-News
By: Lacey McLaughlin
Sharlatay Willis printed out a stack of resumes and hopped on her bike for another day of job searching. Taking care to prevent her gray dress slacks from getting tangled in her bike chain, the 23-year-old Bethune-Cookman University graduate peddled to a strip mall on Nova Road.
Willis introduced herself and handed her resume to managers at Family Dollar, Save-a-Lot, Burlington Coat Factory and Steak n’ Shake, but they all directed her to apply online where she worries her application will fall into a black hole.
The English major graduated in December with hopes of landing a job as a magazine writer or writing coach for students. But after months of dead ends and no reliable income, Willis said she would be happy to land a part-time service job.
“It gets kind of frustrating because I spent four years working so hard for a college degree and here I am struggling to find a retail job,” said Willis, who has $30,000 in student loans. “I wanted that dream job right out of college. I didn’t know it was going to be this hard.”
Lingering unemployment and student loan debt are creating additional worries for college graduates who are entering a job market that has fewer opportunities than previous generations. An analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York two years ago showed 44 percent of recent college graduates — age 22 to 27 — were working in jobs that did not require degrees.
While jobs reports point to a modest recovery and news of new development locally is encouraging, real wages remain stagnant and good jobs are hard to find. Investing in a college degree has traditionally led to higher long-term economic benefits, but the current economic climate raises questions about the financial future of millennials, especially for those like Willis who have degrees in low-demand majors, such as liberal arts and social sciences.
“There is an across-the-board issue here that has led graduates to take positions below what they are qualified for,” said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. “Every year that you are working a retail job and not in a degree-related field is a year of experience and human capital that you can’t get back.”
Georgia native Jana Lott moved to Daytona Beach with her college roommate after graduating from St. Leo University on Florida’s west coast with a professional writing degree last May. She aspires to work for a publishing company, but after months of job searching she felt relieved when Kmart hired her for a cashier’s position in October.
Realizing that her 20-hour-a-week job won’t be enough to pay off $125,000 in student loans and cover her living expenses, the 23-year-old moved back home with her mother in Jacksonville when her lease ended this month. Lott said she had been applying for about 20 career-related jobs each week but has taken a break because she feels burned out.
“By the time I am 27, I hope to be working in my career field,” Lott said. “I have never looked at what I should be making. Money isn’t a huge factor to me. I just want to do something I enjoy.”
Research indicates that young adults like Lott may never financially catch up to college graduates who started their careers shortly after graduation.
A new report by the Young Invincibles, a post-recession youth advocacy group, predicts that each jobless worker age 18 to 24 accounts for $4,100 a year in forgone tax revenue and social benefits.
Young Invincibles Policy and Research Manager Tom Allison, who co-authored the report “No End in Sight? The Long-Term Youth Jobs Gap and What it Means for America,” said that the shrinking of middle-class jobs and the burden of student loans create economic barriers for many recent graduates. His organization is pushing for the U.S. Department of Education to release data that tracks college graduates and majors to show who’s getting hired and their starting salaries, in addition to pushing for legislation that would reduce college tuition rates.
“There is a national debate over whether a college degree is working or not,” Allis said. “On average, it completely is. You can expect a million dollars more in life-term earnings with a degree. But there needs to be a shift with transparency and accountability. There needs to be more of a demand from consumers to get a better idea of what the value of a degree is.”
Milestones like becoming a homeowner or reaching retirement are far from Lott’s current worries. She believes the right job is out there and it’s just a matter of time before she finds it.
“I have a lot of friends who get pressure from their parents to just take any job they can find,” Lott said. “I think some people get pushed into jobs they don’t want, and I’m not just going to take a job to get a paycheck.”
Willis, who is from Miami, started looking for jobs in November but said she seldom received a response from publications or schools. When her 20-hour-a-week job on campus ended upon graduation, Willis started looking for any job that would provide a steady income.
“I want to stay in Daytona and find a job. Back at home there’s a lot of trouble that I don’t want to get into and the area is bad when it comes to crime,” Willis said. “Once I get set financially, I hope to go further north and move to a bigger city.”
When she was younger, Willis said her parents pushed her to do well in school and go to college. Her mother, a school bus driver, and father, a car mechanic, told their daughter they wanted her to have more opportunities than they had.
Now Willis has $30,000 in student loans and is struggling to find an opportunity as good as her parents had. She said she is considering going to graduate school if she is unable to find a job in her field by next year but worries about piling up more debt.
Graduates with social science and liberal arts degrees are faring worse in this economy, but the job market has become more competitive as graduates face higher demands from employers, Snaith at UCF said.
In 2010, the national unemployment rate for recent college graduates was about 5 percent and that rate has now climbed to 7 percent. The Federal Reserve Bank study, however, points out that those with college degrees that provide technical training are more likely to be working in their field. For example, 75 percent of those with an engineering degree are working in a job that requires a college degree. The two majors with the lowest unemployment rates are health and education majors.
Willis supports herself through baby-sitting jobs and splits her meager living expenses with roommates. With her bike as her only form of transportation, she cycles to Bethune-Cookman’s campus in Daytona Beach from her Port Orange apartment during the week. On campus, she conducts online job searches and mentors students at the university’s writing center. She also bikes to retail stores along her route to pass out her resume and inquire about jobs.
Her search took a big setback recently when her cellphone fell out of her pocket on the ride home and was never recovered. With no money to replace the phone, Willis found an app that allows her to receive calls and text messages on a tablet, but she is often unable to receive voicemails and the reception is spotty. A missed call could be a missed opportunity.
“Either I am under-qualified for a lot of these jobs or I’m overqualified,” Willis said. “I think there are a lot of different aspects that aren’t giving me the opportunity I want. I feel like I have put a lot of work to get to where I am at and I’m going to have to keep putting in work.”
Willis still hasn’t gone on an interview despite applying for more than a dozen jobs. She is saving her baby-sitting money to pay $150 for a temporary teaching certificate so she can be eligible to work with students at local schools. As she continues to search for service jobs, Willis said she often worries about living so close to the edge. She can’t afford health insurance and receives food stamps to buy groceries. While she is optimistic about her future, the lack of responses from employers is starting to take its toll.
“It’s starting to feel draining because I’m not getting any responses,” she said. “It gets frustrating but I’m still pushing forward.”