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Fresh out of College and Jobless?

By Sindya N. Bhanoo Email By Sindya N. Bhanoo
June 2009
Fresh out of College and Jobless?

The India Club at Georgia Tech recently put on a dazzling Holi show at the Georgia World Congress Center. Students from Tech, Emory, and Georgia State took to the stage and moved their bodies to Bhangra, Indian film and folk music for a crowd of several thousand.

A group of seniors from Georgia Tech wowed the crowd, dressed in yellow and black, the school’s colors. Their team name was most shocking of all: Jobless.

The name was partly a joke, and partly a throwback to their job hunting woes and the national economic landscape.

This year’s college graduates face one of the worst job markets in history, at a time when seasoned, experienced professionals are having to make trips to the unemployment office. According to NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, companies this year will hire 22 percent fewer graduating seniors than they did in 2008. Some students have chosen to apply to graduate school, but as always during a recession, the competition is stiff.

Starting salaries, also, are lower. The overall average offer to a 2009 bachelor’s degree graduate is about $48,515—down 2.2 percent from the average of $49,624 last year.

“This illustrates the effects the recession is having on the job market for new college graduates. The decrease in average offer is one sign that demand is down,” said Marilyn Mackes, executive director of NACE.

Refusing to let the economic climate pull them down, new graduates in the Indian-American community are learning to see this time as an opportunity to be creative. Instead of letting the market beat them down, they are finding ways to beat the market, by using this time to travel to India, volunteer, and look into jobs that they may otherwise have overlooked. When the market is ready for them, they too will be poised to be competitive.

Vijal Shah , who recently graduated from Clayton State University in Atlanta, is one of these students. Shah just received her degree in biology and hopes to become an optometrist. Ideally, she would like to work in an optometrist’s office for a year while she takes the entrance exam required for optometry school and works on her applications. But finding a job, even as a receptionist at an optometrist’s office, had been a challenge, Shah said, and her Plan B was to take the year off to study dance and music. For now, she’s teaching Kathak and Bollywood dancing at Arya Dance Academy, and plans to volunteer at an eye doctor’s office.

“Usually, when they see your efficiency while you’re volunteering, they might just hire you,” she said. “It’s like a long, boring, not-paid interview where they can see how good you are.”

If within a year Shah can’t find a full-time job, she’s considering going to India to further her studies in Kathak and Hindustani classical music while she works out a new plan. She’s looking at it as an opportunity to gain expertise in something she loves. “Actually, another career goal of mine is to teach more dance, learn more dance, and singing,” she said. “The reason I want to be an optometrist and not a medical doctor is because it’s good money with a very flexible, laid-back schedule.”

Shah also said she was using Clayton’s career counselors as a resource to help sculpt her resume and chart out different paths she might pursue. “Every university has these services. They help you build your resume, guide you, and have a lot of contacts,” she said. “They can lead you in the right direction.”

Kevin Gaw, the director of career services at Georgia State University, agreed, and added that every detail counted in a tough job market. “Employers give resumes 20 or 30 seconds and that’s it,” he said. “So the quality of a resume is so critical. There are fantastic opportunities out there, but it’s more competitive,” he added. “They aren’t hiring in hoards like they used to.”

Gaw is encouraging students that are still in school to minor in another area to make themselves more competitive in the job market. “Firms out there have cut back on accounting hires,” he said. “Does that mean you shouldn’t major in accounting? No, but accounting majors are being advised to get a minor; it makes you broader.”

Students graduating this year are also more interested than before in service work, such as the Peace Corps and Americorps. “It’s great. This economy is fueling people’s values. Students are using this current situation to chase their values rather than the dollar,” Gaw said.

A few years ago, when the market was good, a student might have had a handful of job offers, and he or she may have been inclined to take the job that paid the most. This market, Gaw thinks, forces new grads to be more introspective and think deeply about what they really want to do in life, and what they want out of life. Sometimes, he said, it also meant taking a job that wasn’t the perfect match, and using it as leverage to plan next steps.

“Our vision for our office is that every individual lives out their passion and purpose. A lot of people believe that if you are happy in your career the money will follow,” he said. “Now it may not be billions, but that’s not why you’re there. You may see the money in the thousands instead.”

Another good place to look for a job is the federal government, he adds., the federal government’s official online job list, has close to 50,000 open positions at the moment. The number of fresh graduate hires is also expected to increase. “The thing with federal money is the jobs don’t come with a high salary,” he said. “But we all have to learn to live within our means.”

For Amy Vaduthalakuzhy, going the government route turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Vaduthalakuzhy graduated from Georgia Tech in 2007 with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to do her master’s at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. After graduating in 2008, she took a couple months off to travel and visit family in India. When she returned to the United States and started looking for a job in October, she was in for a shock.

“I applied for a bunch of stuff and there were a few times when I thought the interview went really, really well and I didn’t get the job,” she said. “In fact, one interviewer told me I was an amazing candidate, but then later said they had a hiring freeze.”

This went on for several months until December, when Vaduthalakuzhy landed a job with the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University. The lab is a non-profit that does top secret research for the Department of Defense and NASA. She was apprehensive at first because she wasn’t keen on a research position, but she enjoys her position as a wireless communications engineer now.

For graduates looking for a job now, Vaduthalakuzhy says the important thing is to be open-minded. “I don’t want to say settle, but just be open and don’t limit yourself to one thing you want to do,” she said. “To be able to kind of compromise, for now, at least, is important.”

She has also become a proponent of government positions, and government contracting positions, which offer a type of stability that is tough to find in the current economic climate. Talking about her job with the Department of Defense, she says, “I think judging it in the beginning was my biggest fault,” she said. “When I interviewed for it in the beginning, it wasn’t like it was the most ideal job ever, but I like it. It’s very stable as far as I’m concerned, and it’s interesting.”

Though the climate is dreary, this new cadre of graduates is young and energized. “The economy is down and some of us don’t have jobs leaving school,” said Vijay Palvia, who was on Team Jobless and recently graduated from Tech. “But from my group of friends, a lot of people are going to graduate school instead of going straight for a job. Several of my friends also already have jobs from the internships and co-ops that they did.”

Palvia, whose long-term plan is to go into medicine, is still exploring what his options are immediately after graduating. Like many Indian students before him, he sees healthcare as a promising sector. “The healthcare field is a popular field for my classmates and me,” he said. “It’s a very needy area right now.”

Vijal Shah, the Clayton graduate who wants to become an optometrist, agreed. “People always get sick,” she said. “It’s just a field that’s never going to fade. If I don’t get into optometry school, I have other plans for a graduate degree. I will probably try to become a physical therapist.”

Economic downturn or not, some things in the Indian community never change.


Tips for Grads

“The most important thing is to be very intentional. To an employer it shows through. They’re going to be looking for someone who really wants to work for them. This year more than in past years, they’re going to hire someone who they know will fit in, rather than someone who might.”—Dr. Kevin Gaw, Director of University Career Services, Georgia State University

“Look for companies that do a lot of government contracts. The economic situation hasn’t affected these companies as much as the other ones.”—Amy Vaduthalakuzhy, Georgia Tech ’07, University of St. Andrews, ’08

“Use career services. Every university has these services. They help you build your resume, guide you, and have a lot of contacts. They can lead you in the right direction.” —Vijal Shah, Clayton State University, ’09

“Use your contacts...close family, friends and professors. If you just throw out a resume randomly, you’re less likely to get a response.”—Shardule Shah, Case Western University, ’07, University of Pennsylvania, ’09

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