Above Average Capabilities, Below Average Opportunities: Commencement 2002
Despite celebration and ceremony, commencement is, for many, a bittersweet affair. It first congratulates seniors on their achievements at Vassar, then thrusts them (most of them, anyway) into a new phase of adulthood requiring financial autonomy and the responsibility of finding a career.
Entering this new phase, the Vassar class of 2002 faces the toughest U.S. job market in over a decade. The national unemployment rate hovers around six percent, and, to make things worse, the National Association of Colleges and Employers estimates hiring of new graduates is down 36 percent from 2001.
A recent U.S. News & World Report cover story urged job seekers to think creatively and consider careers in the federal government, including the burgeoning security industry.Illustrated by 1940s-style pictures and slogans — Uncle Sam pointing (“I want you!”), businessmen shaking hands (“Start networking: good friends get good jobs”), and a falling axe (“Be prepared!”) — the article hinted that national and job security now go hand in hand as American priorities. But aside from those who may be entering the Defense Department, new Vassar graduates are starting on one of life’s more insecure stages. Despite all of this, many seniors were using the word “excited” to describe their feelings about their impending graduation. Most had done some job hunting, a few had internships or fellowships lined up, and all seemed ready to leave the familiarity of Vassar and seek out new experiences.
Hannah Dominick ’02 said she thought seniors were aware of the job market but remained optimistic. “There’s this joke [among seniors] that the economy’s so bad, everybody should just go to grad school instead of trying to find jobs. But,” she laughed, “I don’t know many people who are going to grad school, and I don’t know many people with jobs, either.” Her plan (a common one) was to travel during the summer, then return home to consider the next step. Beneath their excitement, many seniors also expressed fears about graduating. These ranged from understandable anxiety about not finding jobs, to worries about not living up to parents’ expectations, drifting apart from friends, or losing structure in their lives. Even the most carefree seniors seemed to realize that in addition to an occupation change, graduation would mean farewell to home, school, friends, and teachers — all in one day.The convergence of these many changes inevitably feels scary, but if Vassar predecessors are any indication of how new grads will fare, the class of ’02 should take heart. The class of 1932 graduated into the worst economy of the last century — the Great Depression — but alumnae from that era still recall finding adventure and success in the job hunt.
Dorothy Church Zaring ’32, Beatrice Chinnock Grabbe ’32, and Laura Wood Roper ’32 all took first jobs in Manhattan department stores. Zaring’s stint lasted only three weeks before she found a position as a letter writer through a Vassar-sponsored employment agency. Later, her Vassar Italian courses landed her a job in military intelligence (researching Italy during WWII), leading to a career in Washington. Grabbe’s retail job was comfortable; she knew someone at Macy’s and was hired there as a service supervisor. But Roper was a Macy’s sales clerk and said she was “mercifully fired.” In her next job at Saks Fifth Avenue, she aced a mandatory intelligence test, but after squeezing a customer into a too-small garment, was told that hers “was not a merchandising intelligence.” The supervisor was right: she would later author four biographies.Since the Depression, the economy has of course had additional slumps — most recently during the early 1990s. Jane Ellin ’92 started off temping after graduation, then moved into a series of jobs leading to her current position as a publishing manager. She’s now on the hiring end of the job market but observed that “even during the economic boom, there were always liberal arts graduates eager to get into publishing, no matter what the salary or job.” She noted that she looks for applicants with “some kind of related experience, even if it’s simply working on the school newspaper.”
Writer Paul Roberts ’92 said his biggest suggestion for new graduates, one he wished he’d taken himself, is to “recognize that life is a marathon and not a 50-yard dash.” He advises grads to “take the time to really sit down and figure out what type of a person you are and what type of work matters to you, then look for jobs that have those qualities.” He emphasized that this process may take a while.
If 1992 was a bad time to find a job, 2002 has been characterized as a bad time for just about everything. This year’s commencement speaker, Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, wryly called 2001–02 “the worst year ever in the history of humankind.” His assessment may strike a chord with recent graduates who’ve had to juggle large-scale issues such as terrorism and mass destruction on one hand and personal concerns like paying the rent on the other.Maggie Mateer ’01 has been adept at such juggling. Her Vassar fieldwork experience led to a social service job in New York City, which she started on September 10, 2001. On day three of the job, her office moved to Pier 94, where she helped coordinate relief services for World Trade Center victims and their families. The work wasn’t easy, but Mateer felt good about it; and besides paying the bills, it provided valuable experience in her field.
Another recent graduate, Michael Beck ’01 perhaps knows the current job market better than any other alumna/us. As a computer technician at a processing center in Concord, California, he received as many as 60,000 resumes each day for positions at various client companies.According to him, “The dirty little secret is that when you email your resume to [a major company], it doesn’t go to them. It comes straight to us. We enter the information in the computer, and it gets deleted a little while later.” And the paper resumes he receives? He said that for lack of space they were stored in the bathroom and discarded every few weeks.
The good news for the class of ’02 is that the 60,000 resumes a day Beck’s firm processed a year ago dropped to 10,000 this spring. Ironically for Beck, fewer resumes meant less business, downsizing, and the loss of his own job; but he said this allows him to look for something new in a better location, and he’s excited about it. Beyond his excitement, fears must lurk, too, as they do for Vassar’s newest graduates. But what would graduation — this rite of passage — be without a good challenge?
Cohen ’00 lives in Berkeley, California, and is open to suggestions on his career.