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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

A Slow Recovery

The recession is over, but alumni face an uphill challenge in
the job market

By Kate Hunger

Terence Bell isn't set to graduate until fall 2011, but he was scoping out the scene at a recent campus job fair in hopes of securing an internship. Taking the long view is all part of his plan to land a job in the construction and development field, and the Houston economics and real estate finance major was smiling as he surveyed the crowd.

"I love the energy in here," he said of the packed University Center Ballroom. "Everyone has their 'Go get it' mentality."

Bell counts his participation in the Honors College among the features of his résumé that will help him stand out during his job search. "I've done as many things as I can to distinguish myself," he said. "Me personally, I'm not worried."

And yet, Bell's college years began during the worst economic recession in decades. The National Bureau of Economic Research announced in September that the 18-month-long recession officially ended in June 2009. Recovery is indeed underway, said Ken Weiher, chair of the economics department at UTSA. But it may be a while before the effects are felt.

"We could be five years out before we get back to the unemployment rate we had before the recession began," he said. The economy has been slowly expanding for more than a year, but just when it will kick into a higher gear is unknown.

"People never know—they try to predict," Weiher said. "The hiring comes back after the first year or two. That first year or two of recovery is never as good as people would like. Positive signs pile up and it sort of snowballs."

Illustrated by Brian Stauffer

Contingency plans

When layoffs begin, workers return to school

The increasingly empty parking lot at the bank where she used to work is one image that sticks with Samantha Blackburn when she thinks about the career she left.

"That whole climate was just terrifying," she said. "You see people getting laid off all around you—good people, people that have been with [the bank] for 20 years. You start contingency planning, beefing up the savings and thinking, ‘Where am I going to look for work?'

"It's psychologically exhausting. You see people leaving and all this work that needs to be done and less people to do it. That was a difficult couple of years."

But unlike some of her coworkers, Blackburn wasn't let go. She chose to leave.

"I went through two mergers in the span of two years, and I started asking myself, 'Is this what I want to be?' " she said. "I liked my job OK but I didn't see myself doing it for the long run. It was all those changes that got me thinking."

Blackburn and her husband agreed that the time was right for a change. So, five years after graduating from Notre Dame with a bachelor's of business administration with a marketing major, the San Antonio native enrolled last year in UTSA's Graduate School. She will graduate this spring with a master's in communication.

It's a trend that happens often during dour economic times, economists explain. Alumni often return to college for advanced degrees when the job market weakens. From 2008 to 2010, applications for doctoral programs in UTSA's Graduate School increased by more than 50 percent.

Blackburn's research interests include how people communicate and the potential effects of new media on its users. She hopes to enroll in a Ph.D. program this fall and ultimately to teach at the college level.

The transition from working in the banking business to returning to college took some adjustment.

"I had been out of school for five years," Blackburn said. "I had bankers' hours; I had my weekends and evenings free. I had to make that mental shift: 'Now your time is not your own. You are going to be working all the time.'"

She initially asked her employer to accommodate a part-time work schedule so that she could continue working while pursuing her degree, but her boss didn't go for the idea. That turned out to be a positive, because she found a position as a teaching assistant in the Department of Communication and currently is a research assistant to two professors in the Department of Marketing. Her job gives her a bird's-eye view of UTSA's doctoral program in business administration in marketing—which she is strongly considering—and of life as a college professor.

Still, Blackburn doesn't believe that a new career will necessarily spare her hard knocks.

"Even at that level there is still an element of job insecurity," she said. "I guess if this experience with the bank industry has taught me anything, it's [that] you'll find a way. Just do your best not to worry about things until they actually become a problem."

— Kate Hunger

Texas' unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in December. That was the 16th consecutive month that the rate has reached 8 percent or higher, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. In comparison, the U.S. unemployment rate was 9.4 percent in December.

New graduates are competing not only with each other, but also with laid-off workers and discouraged workers who had been waiting to reenter the job market once signs of a rallying economy appeared, Weiher said. Nationally, about 450,000 workers are laid off each week and file for unemployment for the first time, he said.

"You're competing with all these people and people who are quitting. … That's a lot of competition," he noted.

Because retirement funds took huge hits during the recession, baby boomers are not retiring as early, another factor alumni encounter in their employment pursuit. But Weiher offered a silver lining

"While thousands are being laid off at any given time," he said, "there are also thousands being hired."

Back to school

A weak job market often drives alumni to return to school, Weiher said. For those who have been debating that advanced degree, he said, the time might be perfect right now.

"That's the beauty of going to college," Weiher said. "Maybe this is the time to be adding value. Recessions do bring people back to school."

The Graduate School has seen a substantial increase in enrollment, said Lisa Palacios, director of recruitment and retention. Current students in master's programs seem to be buckling down with heavier loads, she said, and prospective students are eager to add an advanced degree to enhance their appeal to employers.

"My recruiters and I talk to a lot of prospective students who are worried about their job or are recently laid off or are new to San Antonio," Palacios said.

Applications to the Graduate School's doctoral programs have increased more than 50 percent from fall 2008 to fall 2010. Enrollment of doctoral students increased 20 percent from fall 2009 to fall 2010 and there was a 13 percent increase in enrollment of master's students.

Returning to school adds another bullet point to students' résumés, but it also allows them to flex their intellectual muscles and find new interests. Research shows that it's common for people to make multiple career changes throughout their lives. Baby boomers on average make about half a dozen. While it had appeared that their children would increase that number, the recession may have changed that trend, said Audrey Magnuson, interim director of the University Career Center. However, work-life balance remains a top priority for them, she added.

"The actual research indicates that our younger generation has slowed down in their thinking about changing jobs as frequently due to the recession," she said. "Whether that change in thinking is permanent remains to be seen."

The net number of jobs lost since the recession officially ended is 329,000.

National Bureau of Economic Research

What researchers do believe is that new college graduates are interested in two areas: job advancement and job stability.

"That does not mean it will make them stay [at a job], they are just easier to recruit," she said.

Utilize your resources

Challenging economic times often drive alumni and current students to the University Career Center, Magnuson said. She said she has seen an increase in the number of people using the center's services.

The center offers graduates tips on interviewing and networking, changing careers and résumé writing. Alumni can meet with career counselors, as well as post their résumés and search for job postings. Career assessments are available for those looking to find their perfect career.

Those who work hard at finding a job can usually find one, Magnuson said, although finding higher paying jobs often takes longer.

"We find that a lot of [alumni] come back to the Career Center because they've been laid off," she said. "We can get them working usually in three to six months, but what they put in, they get out."

Another way to increase job options is to broaden the geographic area of a job search and be willing to relocate, she added. Returning to your hometown may be possible in a few years.

It is important to remember that even now, employers are hiring, Weiher said. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) estimates that employers will hire 13.5 percent more college graduates in 2011 than in 2010.

What are they looking for? Engineering and science graduates are in demand "because they are hard to find," Magnuson said. UTSA's student population also makes the school attractive to employers seeking diversity among job candidates.

Employers will hire 13.5 percent more college graduates in 2011 than in 2010.

National Bureau of Economic Research

A survey by NACE found that students' choice of academic major was the biggest factor in determining which new college graduates received job offers prior to graduation. Students seeking bachelor's degrees in accounting, business, computer science, engineering and the social sciences were most likely to have employment offers before graduation. Accounting majors topped the list with almost 47 percent of students surveyed reporting a job offer in hand.

At the other end of the spectrum, fewer than 30 percent of new graduates with bachelor's degrees in education, English and foreign language reported job offers before graduation.

Monica Treviño graduated in spring 2009 and was back on campus this fall recruiting at the job fair for her employer, Medtronic. Two weeks after earning her biology degree, she began her new job as a diabetes therapy associate for the company. She found the career advice she received as a student paid off with a quick job hunt, and she encourages students to heed it.

To all alumni and students looking for work, "Use the resources [on campus]," she said. "They're a tremendous help."


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