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Davis, California

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Sterling Compass

Many of us are conditioned from the get-go that going to college is the key to success. If you work hard and get your undergraduate degree, then you are on the fast track to livin the good life. This is America, damn it, and we can be whatever we want to be.

Well, this is indeed America, but what those in the graduating class of 2009 likely failed to account for in their collective dreams was graduating amidst the hail of the worst economic storm since the Great Depression.

The reality is that an undergraduate degree today is not as valuable as it used to be. If you have connections, then you might land a solid, relatively- high paying job straight out of college, but for most of us it means scratching for whatever scraps happen to fall from the economic picnic basket.

What does this picnic basket look like? Well, Boo Boo, lets just say it’s appalling enough to put your uncle Yogi into cardiac arrest.

Fact: In June 2008, the national unemployment rate was 5.5 percent and the California unemployment rate was 7.1 percent. Remember how hard it was for the class of 2008 to find “real jobs?

Also fact: Today the national and California unemployment rates are around 8.9 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively. This is an unemployment increase of 3.4 percent for the nation and 4.1 percent for California since last year.

Translation: The economy sucks and the job market, especially in California, is a lot worse off than it was a year ago. Basically, finding a decent job ain’t gonna be easy.

It’s basic supply and demand; there is a limited (and shrinking) supply of jobs that a large (and growing) number of people are demanding, which increases employment competition as the relative value of each competitor goes up.

This is what the University of California often fails to prepare us for.

UC Davis is a research university and many if not most UC Davis professors view themselves as public servants selflessly pursuing the advancement of human knowledge. What matters to them is serving the public good, thus they shun any field of study that could be seen as self-serving (i.e. a business major). This approach to higher education is based on the assumption that all undergrads want to become PhDs and not productive members of the general work force.

While this sentiment is not necessarily a bad thing, it creates a harsh reality once a student realizes their undergraduate education has left them with little experience and few real-world skills.

Under normal economic conditions, this lack of useful knowledge is remedied by using entry-level positions to acquire real-world experience. UC Davis tends to do a good job of producing above-average critical thinkers capable of advancing through the ranks once they get their foot in the door.

But today people are so desperate for work that they are trying to force their foot into a door that is only partially open and already jammed with older, more experienced competition.

Case and point: A family friend of mine runs her own lab at Genentech, a top biotechnology corporation. She hires all of her research assistants (basically entry-level positions) and for many years chose from a pool of mostly recent college graduates.

With the biotechnology sector reeling from the economic downtown, hundreds of over-qualified individuals flooded the job market and she has found herself faced with older, highly educated and experienced individuals vying for basic lab rat positions. Simple cost-benefit analysis results in the experienced individual nearly always getting the job over the recent graduate.

Thus, idealistic young graduates find themselves in quite the pickle; needing experience to get hired, but being unable to acquire experience without being hired.

I wish I could tell you how to get out of this pickle, but there are no easy answers. Your best bet is to lower your occupational expectations in the short term and to plan for the long haul by acquiring a graduate-level and/or professional degree.

And hey, if the economy still has not improved after you’ve spent a few years in graduate school, then we’re all pretty screwed anyway.


MIKE HOWER really doesn’t want to work at McDonald’s. He really means this. If you mean it too, then send him a message at mahower@ucdavis.edu.


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