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Life after college: high unemployment and depressed wages

They're facing high unemployment, depressed wages and loads of debt — and they're only in their 20s. Welcome to life after college.

Though the labor market is recovering slowly, graduates this spring have only slightly better chances of landing jobs than grads did in the depths of the recession, experts say.

Over the last year, unemployment has averaged 9.4 percent for college graduates under age 25. Meanwhile, researchers at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute found that more than 19 percent of grads in that age group are underemployed — working part time when they would prefer full-time jobs.

Unemployment typically is higher for recent college graduates than for the working-age population as a whole. But the high recent figures point to a bumpy road ahead for the current crop of graduates, said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist with the Washington nonprofit.

"The kids graduating in 2012 are a little better off than their older brothers and sisters who graduated in 2010 or 2011, but it's still very difficult to find a job," Shierholz said. "The overall labor market is weak, and young workers are getting slammed."

Moreover, some economists believe students face an even bleaker job market than the numbers suggest — among the worst in decades.

For one thing, it's estimated that hundreds of thousands of young graduates with jobs hold low-wage or unskilled positions that don't require a college degree.

"We don't have a measure of the college grads coming out and working retail, or the college grad who's waiting tables," Shierholz said.

But an analysis by researchers at Northeastern University in Boston estimates that last year, about 38 percent, or 760,000, of the 2 million employed young graduates with bachelor's degrees were "mal-employed" — working jobs that don't require a four-year degree.

In addition, nearly 700,000 graduates under 25 were unemployed, though some had returned to school, according to the research, based on 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Labor. Less than half of last year's 2.7 million college grads under 25 had jobs that required a college degree.

"Young adults under 30, especially under 25, have really taken a terrible beating in the labor market, not just during the recession but for the whole last decade," said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern.

Poetri S. Deal, a 22-year-old from Laurel, is waiting still for her four-year degree in political science from Coppin State University to pay off.

She recalled sitting down with her high school career counselor to talk about the allegedly wide array of possibilities for a political science major.

Since graduating in the spring of 2011, Deal has hopscotched between jobs. She worked a summer stint at Coppin, was unemployed for about two months, and then had a string of temporary positions at law firms. She also worked as a legislative assistant during two General Assembly sessions, helping draft bills. Today she works part time as a legislative assistant for her alma mater.

Permanent, full-time jobs seem unavailable or out of reach, she said, with employers demanding more experience than she has. Deal estimated that she spends more hours looking for a full-time job than she does working. Now, struggling to pay rent on a Reservoir Hill apartment, she's weighing whether to move back home with her mother in Laurel or go to law school.

"I find myself looking at restaurant jobs and just anything to fill in the gap," Deal said. "I do have an apartment, so I have rent; then I have college loans. I put in applications everywhere. But I have to look for jobs outside my experience in order to be able to live on my own. It's difficult to pay my own bills."

Many of her college-grad friends were in the same predicament, she said. One works for a retail chain, another as a concierge at an apartment house.

"The jobs you do find are paying $8 an hour," Deal said. "It's hard to go back to $8 an hour when you have your degree."

Northeastern's Sum, whose center has tracked labor trends for teens and young adults for more than a decade, said employment results vary widely depending on a graduate's race, ethnicity and college major.

Locally, Lorie Logan-Bennett, director of the Career Center at Towson University, said demand has been strongest for majors within health care professions, such as occupational therapy, nursing and speech pathology, as well as for business, computer science and education majors.

Employment rates in the under-25 age group were lowest for black and Hispanic males, with only about a third finding jobs that require a degree, Sum said.

After years of advising students that it pays to go to college, Sum now said that "for too many kids, it's not paying."

The difference in mean weekly earnings is startling, he said — $740 a week for those employed in jobs that require college degrees compared to $458 a week for those in positions that don't require degrees.

"The mal-employed produce less, pay less taxes, collect benefits [such as Medicaid and food stamps] and are less likely covered by health insurance," he said. "So young people lose, and we all lose."

Young graduates also face potential long-term problems, said Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute. Entering the job market during a recession means not only low wages in the near term but also earnings instability and more periods of unemployment down the road, she said.

But there are signs of hope.

Towson's Logan-Bennett said she's encouraged by the number of employers competing to reserve space for career fairs.

"We had to start a wait list, and this is probably the first time in many years we've had that problem," she said. "From what we've seen from employer recruitment activity, the job market has improved. Each year we are seeing incremental improvements, so it is moving in the right direction."

Ryan Kim, a senior business administration major at Towson, credited his choice of major, his internship experience and early applications to companies last fall with his securing about a half-dozen job interviews. One led to a full-time job.

"It's hard to do an internship at the same time you're in school, but it actually helps," Kim said. "A lot of companies are looking for experience, and that really gives us an advantage."

The Rockville resident will graduate in a few weeks and in July is to start working for JPMorgan Chase (which was making some less-than-encouraging news last week with its revelation of a $2 billion trading loss). Kim will work as an entry-level operations analyst with the company in Delaware.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," he said.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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