Matt gives himself a $10-a-day budget for food. Aside from that, he spends money only on drawing classes or software that will help get his skills up to a marketable level. Once that’s been accomplished, he can begin to build his portfolio. Eventually, he’d like to do commercial illustration and concept design for film and video games.
“It’s at least a year or two off before I get there,” he says.
Next to him, Gwynn, in the long print skirt and tank top, nods her head with understanding.
She, too, says, “I’ve graduated with a lot of information but not any sort of skill to apply it.”
After four years working toward a degree in Islamic and Arabic studies at San Diego State University, she’d expected to land a job with the CIA or the Department of Defense — not with the sales department at A-1 Self Storage. She knows she’s fortunate to have a job, even if management does keep her exactly one hour short of full time so she won’t qualify for benefits. Luckily, Gwynn shares a one-bedroom apartment with three people, so her rent is a mere $300 per month. She hopes eventually to pull in more than the $11 an hour she makes now.
“I went to a job fair at SDSU, where the CIA had a booth,” says the 24-year-old. “In the course of the conversation [the recruiter] basically said, ‘Come back when you have a fellowship or an internship abroad.’”
School was helpful in that she learned to read and write Arabic, but because she didn’t have the means to travel and practice the language conversationally, she can’t find work as a translator. Gwynn’s plan is to find her way to graduate school via a job with the State Department, or the Navy or Air Force, or anyone that will help her pay for a graduate degree or send her abroad for “real-world experience.” She’s concentrating her energy on studying for the policy tests required to get the consulting jobs she’s hoping for and to keep up with the Arabic she did learn.
Language, she says, is a skill, but “without speaking it, it doesn’t count for much.”
∗ ∗ ∗
In 2007, a company called Hart Research Associates conducted a survey that resulted in a report by the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The 2007 report found that 63 percent of employers believe “college graduates lack essential skills to succeed in today’s economy.”
In the fall of 2009, Hart Research Associates conducted another survey on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and found that “only one in four employers thinks that two-year and four-year colleges are doing a good job in preparing students for the challenges of the global economy.”
On the day I sit in the Blind Lady Ale House with Gwynn, Matt, and the others, I don’t yet know these statistics. And yet we spend nearly our whole afternoon discussing how unprepared these graduates realized they were when it came time to start looking for work.
Although Fern, the bubbly 22-year-old to my left, lives with her parents and doesn’t have the same financial stresses as Matt and Gwynn (because she has no bills or expenses other than those required for socializing), she can relate when her friends suggest that their schooling didn’t quite set them up with everything they needed to compete for jobs in the current economy. Soon after graduation, she realized that even though she received a bachelor’s degree in physics and art with an emphasis in graphics, she doesn’t have the design skills or the portfolio to land a job in graphic design.
Despite all the praise she received in college about her art, as soon as she graduated, she thought, “Oh, shoot. I’m a very, very, very tiny, inexperienced fish who really isn’t worth much at all in this very, very big pond. And that sucks.”
In an attempt both to expand her skills and build her design portfolio, Fern turned to volunteering. She designs T-shirts, brochures, and other promotional materials for Community Coaching Center in Hillcrest and provides merchandise design for the Eugene Bowman Economic Empowerment Center in City Heights. This is in addition to a few hours per week of paid transcription and video captioning for Student Disability Services at San Diego State University.
Scott, whose mustacheless goatee adds sternness to his already serious demeanor, is perhaps the luckiest fellow at the table — at least in terms of time spent postgraduation in one’s chosen field of study. The 22-year-old graduated with a bachelor of science in engineering physics and a minor in chemistry, and he currently works a full-time (albeit unpaid) internship at Silicon Kinetics — building a robot, of all things. He knows he’s lucky to have the luxury of taking a full-time internship without having to worry about money or bills (because his grandparents paid for his college education and because he, too, lives with his parents), but he also feels fortunate to have the internship, especially given the gaps in his knowledge and experience.
“A lot of work consists of keeping track of the screws,” he says, emphasizing the importance of organizational skills, which is not the only thing he didn’t learn in school. “Proficiency in Solidworks, which is a 3-D [computer-aided design] program, would have been nice. And knowing how to solder before I came in would have been good.”
Although Scott doesn’t say much in the group setting at Blind Lady, he emails me later and gives me more details about his job.
“My work specifically is to document the assembly of the Autohandler, which is a Cartesian [or linear] robot that takes bio samples from a tray and places them onto another tray so an optical scanner can take measurements. It’s basically an arm.”
Building a robot sounds like the perfect job for a physics major. Scott agrees that it is. But he couldn’t help being disappointed that he didn’t receive a single job offer after graduating from college.