PULLMAN – It was cloudy when Washington State University held its May commencement ceremony – the showers on the Palouse matching the chill in the national economy.
That was nothing like the storm Saturday when about 1,400 graduates picked up their diplomas during midyear commencement at WSU and nearby University of Idaho. Posing for pictures in their caps and gowns with a backdrop of wet, blowing snow, some graduates wondered how they’re going to find work in the worst job market in decades.
“I haven’t really started looking, and I’m kind of nervous,” said Courtney Byrd, who earned a WSU communications degree. Among her classmates who graduated in spring, “a lot of people are still living at home, not having jobs.”
“I was very lucky to get my nanny job” while waiting for permanent work, said another of Saturday’s WSU graduates, Shalea Jackson, whose husband picked up his diploma in May but still hasn’t found work. “We even resorted to donating plasma to get a little extra cash.”
The economic storm that awaits Saturday’s graduates shows no signs of letting up. About 30 percent of employers who responded to an annual survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers listed job prospects as either “excellent” or “very good,” down from about 60 percent the previous two years.
And that survey ended before the stock market suffered huge losses in October.
Since then, the government has said claims for newly unemployed workers have risen to a 26-year high. There were 533,000 American jobs eliminated in November alone, in what the Associated Press called “the worst mass layoffs in more than a third of a century.” A record 44,100 Idaho workers were without jobs last month.
All that bad news didn’t go unnoticed on the Palouse, where the number of companies at the annual UI/WSU fall career expo dropped from 213 last year to 142 this year.
“I would expect the spring semester to be even lower,” said Suzanne Billington, director of the UI Career and Professional Planning Office. “We have a number of employers who have told us that their travel budgets have been cut, that they are not able to recruit in the numbers that they have in the past or that they are not able to recruit at all this year, until their company’s situation turns around a little bit.”
Even graduates with degrees previously considered recession-resistant are struggling. Career fairs geared specifically for engineering majors are still well attended, although Billington has noticed declining interest among recruiters who hire electrical or civil engineers.
Jordan Peterson, who graduated in July with a WSU degree in civil engineering, sent out 200 résumés and had a good job offer, only to see it disappear the day before he was supposed to start in October. Now, he’s considering graduate school as a way to ride out the recession.
“I wasn’t doing any good just treading water, waiting for a job, working in catering,” said Peterson, whose wife is scheduled to graduate this spring, also with an engineering degree.
It’s worse for liberal arts majors, who may find that degrees in history, philosophy or English don’t readily translate into jobs. At WSU, career counselors urge such students to “keep an open mind and be able to accept something in the interim, even if it’s not maybe what you went to school for,” said Christie Motley, employer relations manager in the Center for Advising and Career Development.
Many who graduated Saturday were optimistic, despite the economy.
Heidi Zager figures she’ll eventually land a job that matches her UI degree in child development and family relations. After all, “there are children wherever you go,” Zager said. “It’s a good degree to get.”
Brandon Martin, who graduated Saturday from UI, has already turned his general studies degree and military experience into a job offer with the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office. The Montana native starts in January and is looking forward to skiing at Schweitzer.
Riley Youngerman said he knows people have always joked about the job prospects for people who get English literature degrees, like the one he picked up Saturday at UI. But he’s not letting it bother him as he prepares to start a six-week internship in Spain, where he hopes to land longer-term work teaching English.
“Actually, the economy has kind of helped to equalize the dollar against the euro,” Youngerman said.