Hopeful college graduates launch into shaky economy

Kara Brockett
Kara Brockett has a bachelor's degree in writing and philosophy from Southwest Minnesota State University. Time is ticking for her to find gainful employment before her student loan payments kick in.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Just a month out of college, Kara Brockett has an impressive resume. She graduated in four years with a double major from Southwest Minnesota State University. Her long list of accomplishments include serving as student body president, heading the State University Student Association, and numerous stints with volunteer organizations and public service efforts. Still, Brockett faces an uncertain employment picture.

"Going through college I had part time jobs and they were all fairly easy to get," she said. "Now here I am--nothing that's worked before is working. It's like starting anew."

Brockett expected her college degree in writing and philosophy would propel her past jobs at the espresso counter or behind a cash register. She watched her older brothers land jobs with little trouble.

"Even my brother in New York City--I asked him once for help writing a cover letter for a job and he said 'well I've never had to write one.' And I said you've got to be kidding me. Here I am writing hundreds and rewriting and saying just the right thing to catch their attention and get a job and he hasn't needed to write one," Brockett said.

"Nothing that's worked before is working."

Brockett noticed that her peers with degrees in more specific disciplines like business or engineering appear to have better luck finding jobs. Her own job search is all the more pressing as each day passes. In five more months, she'll have to start paying off her government and private student loans that add up to about $30,000.

"My payments are looking like about $350 a month, which where I'm planning to live--will be more than my rent is," she said. "So that's very troubling. Going into it it's looking at ways to cut back spending: not going out with friends, not spending money on movies or having night time drinks after work, those kinds of things."

It's possible the government will forgive some of those loans if Brockett finds work with a non-profit or social service organization in the future.

General unemployment figures in Minnesota are only slightly higher than in previous years. But for teens and young adults, unemployment is almost three times that of the population as a whole.

Steve Hine, research director at the Department of Employment and Economic Development also noted the number of entry level jobs is a third of what it was in 2000.

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"That area has fallen off quite significantly--hit the lowest level we've seen in four years there," Hine said. "Other data indicate economy-wide would suggest that people are having a harder time in general finding work."

Hine said job seekers with little experience are typically hit the hardest when job markets tighten. And while more experienced workers might have a mortgage and other large expenses, young people are emerging from school with record amounts of debt so their need for steady income is that much more pronounced.

Tom Joyce with student loan lender, Sallie Mae, said graduates with debt tend to dig in and not take on additional debt during down economic times.

"What we may see from college graduates who are just coming out of school now, they may delay--you see this frequently in an economic downturn--they may delay going to graduate school," Joyce said. "They may decide to go into the workforce a year or two or more before they earn that additional degree and potentially take on more debt."

Graduate school is definitely on the mind of former student Kara Brockett. She's considering furthering her education both as a way to forestall paying her loans back and improve her earning potential.

"Personally I go back and forth. I'm hesitant to acquire more student debt, but I feel that if I were to get an advanced degree I'd be able to pay off that student debt quicker than I would now," Brockett said.

In the meantime, Brockett sees a long period ahead where she'll have to carefully manage her budget, cutting out all but the most necessary expenses.

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