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Grads Of The Great Recession Struggle To Succeed

By John Newsom, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

June 22--Landry Haarmann's work schedule right after graduation was not for the faint of heart.

On Sundays, she tended bar at an Irish pub near her family home in northern New Jersey.

She worked Mondays on an unpaid internship at a public relations firm in New York City.

Three days a week, Haarmann wrote marketing content about educational toys for a New Jersey company.

She worked nights and weekends at a clothing store, where she was paid $8.75 an hour and got a discount on clothes.

"My parents instilled in me that I should be working all the time," said Haarmann, who graduated from Guilford College in 2009 with an English degree. "But I was working ridiculous hours."

That was Haarmann's introduction to the post-graduation economy of 2009. Her story is not unusual.

In the wake of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, members of the collegiate graduating class of 2009 found themselves in a scramble for jobs -- a scramble they hadn't foreseen when they started college four years earlier.

Some, like Haarmann, moved home and cobbled together a series of part-time jobs to hold them over until they found careers. Others took refuge in graduate school, got jobs far below where they had hoped to start or didn't work at all.

The summer of 2009 "was the bottom of the recession," N.C. State economist Mike Walden said. "It was the worst point. Gloom was everywhere at that point. ...

"It was the worst job prospects of any graduating class for 50, 60, 70 years."

Economic collapse

When the class of 2009 entered college in the fall of 2005, the economy was roaring along.

The national unemployment rate was down around 5 percent, which was close to full employment. Interest rates on 30-year home loans hovered at a very reasonable 6 percent. Inflation was nearly non-existent, gross domestic product surged by a healthy 3.1 percent and the Dow Jones Industrial Average remained about 10,000 for the entire year as it romped toward its eventual peak of 14,000.

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The Elon University School of Law opened its doors the next fall, and Greensboro native Danny Donovan recalls classmates talking about the high-salaried jobs -- $100,000 or more -- they were sure to get when they graduated in 2009.

But as college students across the county worked toward a graduation date of May 2009, the wheels started to fall off the economy.

The overheated U.S. housing bubble popped in 2007, and the banking, insurance and financial industries -- which traditionally hired legions of new college graduates -- deflated along with it.

The country's recession officially started in December 2007, when members of the class of 2009 were taking exams at the halfway point of their junior years. It lasted according to official government numbers for 18 months, making it the nation's longest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The fallout was ugly.

Foreclosures soared, oil prices spiked and Americans stopped spending money. By spring break of 2009, the stock market had fallen below 7,000 -- less than half of what it had been a year and a half earlier.

No hiring

Worse for the class of 2009, companies stopped hiring. By the time class members picked up their degrees, the nation's unemployment rate had hit 9 percent on its way to 10, and the American economy was well on its way to losing nearly 9 million jobs.

At one point during the recession, according to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., there was an average of seven people looking for work for every job opening.

Those working in career services offices on college campuses quickly noticed something was up.

Kate Brooks recalls that visits from job recruiters to the University of Texas at Austin fell by about 30 percent in 2009. The number of companies setting up at job fairs was down, too.

"They [companies] were just not hiring as much," said Brooks, now the executive director for personal and career development at Wake Forest University. "It was a very rough period."

One casualty of the jobs crisis was corporate training programs. Because so many experienced workers were laid off during the recession, said those who work in college career offices, companies no longer saw a need to train their own workers.

Matt Boswell had served an internship at BB&T during the summer before his senior year at High Point University, and he figured he had a good shot at landing a spot in the bank's leadership-development program after graduation.

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After two rounds of interviews during his senior year, Boswell said, BB&T froze hiring -- and threw a wrench into his job-search plans.

"It was a very scary process," said Boswell, who majored in business and minored in economics. "I had always been good academically. I didn't think there would be a problem getting a job."

BB&T was far from the only company to scale back on hiring. A National Association of Colleges and Employers survey found that as the economy nosedived in 2009 companies cut college hiring by 22 percent.

"This is a rather grim report," wrote the authors of the association's job outlook report in the spring of 2009. "The current expectations for college hiring are not promising for the Class of 2009. ... College hiring is not immune from the economic turmoil that has gripped the nation and the world for the past year."

Not a lot of fun

No one knew the recession better than the graduates who tried to find jobs in a bad economy.

Cynamon Frierson felt pretty good about her resume. In four years at UNCG, she earned not just a double major -- in marketing and international business -- but a double minor as well, in economics and Spanish. She had spent two semesters abroad: in Mexico, where she was an intern at a resort hotel, and in Spain.

But Frierson didn't find work in her career field right away. After graduation, she moved home to Smithfield and got a job at a jewelry store at a local outlet mall.

"I didn't think it was going to happen to me," Frierson said. "I'm an overachiever. I did as much as I could in four years. ... It was pretty devastating."

Danny Donovan, the Greensboro native and Elon Law graduate, was scrambling, too. He looked for attorney jobs in major North Carolina cities, but found nothing.

Every so often Donovan checked online job listings. He noticed that big Charlotte banks were looking for temporary legal help to examine documents related to the economic meltdown.

"They hired a small army of law school grads," said Donovan, who didn't apply. "$25 an hour, that was really good, all things considered."

At one point he considered working for his father-in-law, who had his own law firm in Boone. He turned that down, he said, because "I would have been taking a piece of his pie."

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The pressure was mounting on Donovan: Not only did he have to take the bar exam in the fall of 2009, he soon would have to start repaying his student loans.

"The job search," Donovan said, "wasn't a lot of fun."

Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312, and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.


(c)2014 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.)

Visit the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.) at

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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