How Long Will Grads Be Stuck Working In Cafes, Restaurants, and Unpaid Internships?

By Tim Price |

Without government action, a generation of college graduates will continue to flounder in unemployment or minimum wage jobs.

While reading Robert Reich’s post the other day about the horrible economy the Millennial generation is graduating into, I wondered what my life would have been like had I graduated in 2008. That year, almost three-quarters of graduates found a job within a year. I was supposed to graduate in 2008, but I ended up switching majors, taking time off, and graduating in 2010. And what a difference two years makes. Now, like so many of those who graduated with me, I’ve yet to land a full-time job and have been lucky enough to string together part-time work and internships. Too many graduates face un- or underemployment and will continue to languish unless the government acts.

My graduation date was delayed because I was a dance major my freshman year, but I realized I wanted to make a difference in the world and felt that switching to the social sciences and humanities would be the best way to do that. As it turns out, though, the arts and humanities are some of the worst areas to study in this economy. According to an A.P. report last month, those who graduated with degrees in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history, and the humanities were among those least likely to find jobs. Those who studied nursing, teaching, accounting, or computer science were better off. These things matter when 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were jobless or underemployed last year.

These overeducated students are now occupying temp positions and taking jobs in the service and retail industries for a lack of better options. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March that retail salespersons and cashiers were the occupations with the highest employment in 2011, and not far behind were general office clerks, food preparation, and serving workers like waiters, waitresses, and customer service representatives.

Those are some of the lowest paying jobs out there. Yet many students graduate with huge debt loads they need to pay off right away. According to the New York Times, the average load in 2011 was $23,300.

I don’t regret having chosen sociology as my major. It completely changed my perception of the world and broadened my understanding of why social problems exist. But it definitely didn’t employ me. Since I’ve graduated, I’ve applied to tons of jobs and internships, worked seven different part-time jobs, and volunteered and organized events when I’ve had the time. These jobs have included cafes, a bagel place, a bar, a restaurant, a boutique, and four different babysitting gigs. A lot of my friends have similarly worked at cafes, restaurants, and nanny jobs to pay the bills.

How will graduates succeed if they’re busy making lattes, mixing martinis, or helping customers try on clothes? Some, like myself, have decided that volunteering and interning is the next best thing. But not everyone can afford to take an internship, since most don’t pay and if they do it’s not very much. This ends up making the competition for finding a job even more skewed toward those who have the financial means to take the time away from other jobs. I may not come from a rich family, but I have the opportunity to take an internship where others don’t. As Tim Price recently pointed out, unpaid internships are not just bad for individuals but for the economy too.

So what’s the solution? According to another Pew Research Center study, the Millennial generation, more than any other, believes that government could do more to address our problems. Franklin Roosevelt implemented the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression to employ individuals of all professions and education levels. We need an updated version of the WPA that can give everyone an equal opportunity to enter the workforce and live a dignified life. Over its duration from 1939-1943, it provided almost 8 million jobs. They mostly went to those who suffered long-term unemployment and 90 percent of the jobs went to those who were classified as needy. A program like the National Youth Administration, another result of the WPA, would also be effective in employing teenage and college aged kids with little education and opportunity. Employing those with and without a college degree is absolutely necessary for a healthy economy. 

I know a lot of inspired young Millennials who would be doing more if they had the opportunity, money, time, and resources. Getting everyone back to work, particularly the young, is a step in the right direction.

Elena Callahan is an intern at the Roosevelt Institute.

Tim Price is the Roosevelt Institute's Editorial Director.