Louisiana may have avoided the worst of the housing bubble and financial crisis, and the recession is technically over, but recent graduates are still having to lower their standards, broaden their searches and delay their dreams when it comes to finding a job.
“I would definitely say that in a general sense, the job prospects for students graduating at this point … it’s not nearly as promising a market as it was prior to the economic downturn,” said Ken Ridgedell, director of the office of career services at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.
Ridgedell, who has been helping college students prepare to enter the workforce for a decade, said that it’s been a different world for graduating students since about 2009.
“In many cases it’s taking students longer to find jobs and students are having to resign themselves to taking jobs that aren’t related to their major,” Ridgedell said. “Unless you come to the table with a very specialized training that’s in demand at the time … you are seeing them have to (adapt or defer).”
And even in technical fields, training isn’t always a golden ticket to the ideal job.
Just ask Keagan Gopaul, who just graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Gopaul said he’s been looking to find work in his ideal field: reservoir engineering in the petroleum industry. He’s been looking for about the last six months, but really ramped up his search after getting his green card three weeks ago.
The search has been eye opening.
“You need a job to get experience, and you need experience to get a job,” he lamented, standing outside a packed conference room in the Marriott near Citiplace early this month. The hotel was the site of a job fair organized by U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, featuring 42 companies drawing about 1,000 job seekers.
Asked what his confidence level is, Gopaul replied with a laugh, “At this point? Maybe zero.”
Gopaul said he has come to grips with the idea that his journey to becoming a reservoir engineer will be a longer one than he originally expected.
“I’m going to have to acquire a lot more experience, so I’m going back to petroleum engineering, and from there I’ll get to reservoir,” he explained. “But to become a petroleum engineer in this market, it’s harder now, so I’m going to have to go back to field engineering and chemical (engineering), so hopefully I’ll get into those. Then I’ll get into petroleum and then to into reservoir engineering.”
That seems to be par for the course in today’s job market.
“Many are having to learn to sacrifice some of their goals or postpone their dreams and accept jobs that are outside of their major,” SLU’s Ridgedell said, noting a recent Associated Press report that one in two new graduates are unemployed or underemployed. “I think that’s becoming part of the conversation for the time being, and I don’t think it sits too well for the new graduates and I don’t think it sits too well for the parents.”
The job fair, which included Lofton Security Services, Atmos Energy, Acadian Ambulance, Cleco, BASF, Demco, Turner Industries, ExxonMobil and others, was touted as a showcase for the “tremendous job opportunities for people here and now in Louisiana.”
It also reflected just how many people are looking for work.
“I didn’t even get a chance to put everything out and there was already a line,” said Lyn Haye, corporate recruiter for home health-care provider Amedisys.
She said Amedisys has positions available not just in its core business of home heath care, but also in human resources, revenue recovery and information technology.
But even after weeding out people without the necessary qualifications or soft skills, Haye estimated she got about 100 leads.
“There’s a lot of quality people out there looking for opportunities,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of closures, companies that closing. Convergys, the Home Depot direct, we’ve got a lot of quality people looking for positions.”
“There’s a lot of people out of work,” said Chris Galland, human resources recruiter for SGS Petroleum Service Corp. “They run the whole gamut from educated to blue collar.”
Galland, who was there taking résumés for product handlers, loaders, dock operators and rail car switchmen, said the difference now from a few years ago is that there are more educated people out of work.
He said he’s more concerned about finding people with clean records, a credible employment history and a good attitude. Training is something the company can provide if it gets someone with the right attitude.
“We’re looking for good people who care about what they do,” he said, noting that out of 20 applicants, there will be 10 worth interviewing and only one worth hiring.
“I gotta kiss a lot of frogs to find a few princes,” he said.
“I always say that I think half the battle is finding people who want to contribute and be there and be dependable,” agreed Haye.
That had yet to help Dustin Parker, who graduated from ITI Technical College with a degree in air-conditioning and electrical technology. He’s been looking for about five weeks.
“I like hard work,” he said. “I like hands-on, hard work.”
Asked how he’s been pitching himself to prospective employers, he described himself as someone who would “bend backwards for any company I get employed by.”
His work experience up until now, however, has been day labor.
“It’s discouraging at times, but I’ve got to keep focused,” he said. “I’ve got to have patience.”
SLU’s Ridgedell said it’s hard to generalize about the mood of students he sees. The experience of looking for a job is binary in nature: you either find out and all is well, or you don’t and it’s not. Students, he said, “realize that they are graduating in a problematic economy.”
He said some are considering prolonging their education by getting an advanced degree or going to law school, though that doesn’t come without a price.
Ridgedell said some areas of the economy are starting to brighten, though only a little.
“I will say it seems like there’s been an increase in postings for technically oriented jobs — for computer science degrees, programming and engineering degrees,” he said. “I can’t say it has been a dramatic change, but we’ve had a few more of those types of postings recently.”
Ridgedell said there still seems to be some demand for accounting, though it’s still not as strong as it was before the downturn.
Ridgedell said employment in heath care — an industry growing due to technological advancements and aging baby boomers — is muted somewhat as nurses and others delay retirement or forgo taking breaks to start families because of the economy.
“It has really tightened the market significantly for entry-level nurses to get those jobs,” he said. “It’s a ripple effect from other parts of the economy, affecting the stronger sectors. It’s basically closing out the job market for these students graduating with degrees in hand.”
Ridgedell said this just heightens the importance of career counselors and students staying focused on the traditional balance between a student’s desires and aptitude on one hand and what jobs are actually available on the other.
“Are they so passionate about that area that they’re willing to risk those numbers?” he asked. “To what degree does someone in a counseling role discourage them from pursing that? It’s always been a challenge, but it’s becoming more of a challenge than it’s been in the past.”
Steve Garcia sits on the edge of the landscaping in front of the Marriott as the sun sets lower in the sky, waiting for a friend to pick him up from the job fair.
Twenty-two years old, Garcia has been out of school for three years, having spent about a year in New Orleans as a corporate trainer and two in Taipei, Taiwan, teaching English with his wife.
Garcia said he loved teaching English abroad, and life was good in many respects, but it was time to come back despite warnings about the job market from friends. The couple is staying temporarily in Thibodaux with their 18-month-old son, Charlie. Also, Garcia’s wife got a job as a social worker with the elderly in Napoleonville pretty quickly.
Garcia, a history major from the University of New Orleans, said there weren’t many opportunities in the job fair that weren’t manual labor or required an advanced degree or technical training. He’s thought about going back to school, but paid off student loans overseas and deliberately avoided a mortgage or car payment specifically to avoid getting saddled by debt.
He said the job search can be frustrating.
“I saw one job on Craigslist for a business analyst and I thought, ‘Oh, I can totally get that.’ So I sent them my résumé and I didn’t hear anything. It’s been two weeks. Same thing with The Courier, the little newspaper down in Houma? It was looking for a reporter and I thought, ‘I have a history degree. I can write.’ And I didn’t hear anything.”
It’s a little discouraging. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot out there, at least white collar-type stuff. It’s either skilled labor or petroleum engineer, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot in the middle for someone with a bachelor’s degree.”
“I’ve always had a job, ever since I got out of school, and even when I was in school I had a job somehow. I have a friend who owns a company in Thibodaux and I’ve been working with him, delivering Porta Potties. It’s depressing, but I can’t sit around all day. So I’m kind of torn. Part of me is saying ‘Get a job, get on with one of these big companies, do something for the money and just move up. …’ And another part of me is (asking), ‘Do you really want to sit in a cube? Do you want to maybe do something like become a teacher; do something you enjoy, not just something for the money? But those jobs are just few and far between ….”
“I’m at this point where I’m like, ‘Do I really want to sit in a cube? Or sit in a plant and press a button all day? I don’t think that’s any way to live. I’ve seen it. Sometimes the work gets slow and people will just sit there and collect a paycheck.”
Garcia said he’d love to be a teacher or work at a museum, which may be the next chapter in his search.
“I just love history so much,” he said, but added that if that doesn’t happen, he might be better off working offshore, being a roustabout or a rigger or “some crazy blue-collar job.”
“That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I just can’t sit in a cube. I will just die.”