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Workplace 2003: What’s Next For Graduating Seniors?

Workplace 2003: What’s Next For Graduating Seniors?
By Julianne Malveaux

As the University of Michigan affirmative action cases snake their way through the Supreme Court deliberation process, many students are concerned not just with getting into college, but what happens when they get out? Those graduating in 2003 face an economy far more sluggish than the one that young people encountered just a year ago. And it’s a far cry from the brisk job market of 1999 when some undergraduates in highly technical fields were being wooed to work with signing bonuses.

Now, with the overall unemployment rate at 5.8 percent (in March), and 10.8 percent for African Americans, many Black college graduates will take longer than their White counterparts to find employment. Reasons for the differences in job search are partly a function of undergraduate major and activities. Part of it is a function of the different resources that some young people bring to the job search process. While some come armed with a set of contacts, others lack the “hookup” to get a foot into the door. The affirmative action issue is as important in hiring as it is in education, because it levels the contact playing field and casts a wider net to provide opportunities for all graduating seniors qualified to work.

Even with affirmative action, most see the 2003 job market as a rough one. Fewer people will be hired than last year, and entry-level salaries aren’t likely to go up much. More students who want to work for nonprofits will be offered unpaid internships that may turn into jobs, and many will scramble for volunteer opportunities to beef up a résumé. But those young people who have to work for a living may find themselves working out of their area of expertise.

Those looking for work in financial services firms, communications service companies, or computer equipment manufacturers may find the most challenges. These are the firms that are reluctantly laying off experienced workers. Other companies are bringing in new workers because they thrive on the energy of new talent. They aren’t necessarily paying more, but they are providing opportunities and a foot in the door for those who can hang on until the economy turns around.

Students who graduate with little experience or with the infamous “Gen X” sense of entitlement are likely to make a rough adjustment to the workplace. In surveys, employers complain about entry-level workers who don’t want to do “menial” work like copying and answering phones. They say that many college graduates lack the communications skills, writing skills and flexible attitude that is necessary to make it in the workplace. Whenever I hear the word “attitude” I shudder, realizing that too many people think that all Black folks have attitude, and that “attitude” is easy shorthand for clarity and assertiveness. But that’s generalizing. In workplace 2003, job seekers are best advised to inspect their expectations for work.

The economy now is such bad news that former six-figure earning White men are being forced to work at the Gap (see New York Times Magazine, April 13, 2003). Obviously that does not bode well for African American college graduates who are entering the labor market. But, for all the bad news, there are always possibilities that the driven and ambitious should consider.

The labor market is a dynamic place. People gain and lose jobs every day. Companies that say that they are cutting jobs are often also hiring. And while fewer companies are recruiting on college campuses, those who are seriously looking for work will be sure to check out the ones who come, doing their homework in advance, and asking detailed questions about the range of opportunities that are offered.

Even in a sluggish market, competence and enthusiasm is infectious. People should strive to do what they love, while understanding that even the best job will have challenging aspects. The market should sharpen skills, not discourage students from looking for work. It should also sharpen political awareness, motivating students to ask questions about the integrity of an administration that will attempt a tax cut that benefits only the wealthy in a choked economy.

Some who can’t find jobs may well be encouraged to consider entrepreneurial opportunities. Many recent college graduates now make a living as freelance workers in several different fields. Graduate school programs are also seeing a surge in new applicants since the economy began to sour in late 2001. Many students are using this as an incentive to stay in school, and that can be a good thing if graduate studies serve a purpose other than to avoid the unemployment blues. For many, though, paying for graduate education is a challenge. State universities are among those that will have fewer financial aid dollars than they did in the past.

Willie Gary, billionaire attorney who also owns cable network MBC, ends many of his speeches with the slogan, “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.” This is a powerful exhortation for graduating seniors, especially those African American seniors who may face higher hurdles than their White counterparts. The job market is sluggish and hiring is down, but the strong will survive with determination, focus and the creativity to develop their own opportunities.

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