Pensacola, Florida
Thursday April 26th 2018


Do You Want Fries With That?

Pensacola’s Overeducated and Underemployed
by Scott Satterwhite

The fast food chain McDonald’s recently held a national hiring event that brought tremendous publicity to the company. The corporate goal was to hire 50,000 people in one day. In a poor economy plagued by prolonged recession and high unemployment, chances are high that high school students will not be the only ones to apply.

The McDonald’s hiring campaign is reminiscent of a bumper sticker that reads “I have a degree in the Liberal Arts…Do you want fries with that?”

Replace the phrase “liberal arts” with just about any other bachelor’s degree, and the joke still works. As McDonald’s tries to shed its image as a provider of “McJobs,” educated workers are already relying on such jobs for their livelihood. In fact, nearly 25 percent of all workers in the service and retail industries are college educated, holding at least a bachelor’s degree—sometimes higher.

In the stack of applications for a fast food job are certain to be a new class of workers—the overeducated and underemployed.

Throughout the nation, vast numbers of people who were trained to do one job are working in another field out of necessity, typically for less money. This group of workers often has at least a bachelor’s degree yet is unable to find work in their chosen profession. Education may not be a necessary component for employment in the jobs they hold, and neither are livable wages. Such workers may not make enough to repay college loans, pay their bills and buy food.

According to the Labor Department’s website, there is no accurate method to track the number for these underemployed workers “because of the difficulty of developing an objective set of criteria which could be readily used in a monthly household survey.” Buried in the nation’s unemployment statistics are these workers. They are not unemployed, but they are generally making less than they used to make prior to the economic collapse of 2008 and usually not nearly what they thought they would make after college.

As company after company closed, downsized and laid-off its employees, many workers who were employed in specific trades found themselves out of a career. As the economy continued to stagger, many took this opportunity to go to college or return for their master’s degrees. While this would be a logical step for those out of work, the economy never really recovered—at least to what it was before the “Great Recession” began. Today, these workers are coming out of college with more competition but possibly fewer jobs.

Pensacola is not immune to this phenomenon. At nearly any restaurant in town, from McGuire’s to Sluggo’s, a very educated staff is waiting to take your order. At local car dealerships, the salespeople may possess degrees in nursing and counseling.

Many factors figure into this situation, but there are no signs of this workforce dynamic changing anytime soon.

Economists and sociologists speak of a “new norm” for the American worker: unemployment high, wages low and prospects dim for a recovery to pre-recession status. For the college-educated worker, times have changed. No longer is a college education a guarantee of a successful life, as it was a few decades ago when degrees were less common. Today nearly one in every four people has a bachelor’s degree, and high-paying jobs are scarce.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with a college education have fared better during the economic downturn than those without. The unemployment rate is just less than five percent, compared to ten percent for high school graduates. While more college-educated workers are employed, the work they are doing may not be what they envisioned for themselves.

The Labor Department admits that tracking the statistical date for the underemployed worker is difficult. Much of the criteria that determines this status is subjective and in flux. As employees have been asked to make financial sacrifices to maintain work, a person who held a strong job five years ago may find that the same job is less valuable or profitable today.

Adding to this problem is the vast number of workers who returned to college during the recession. For those who went to school and attained an advanced degree, in a market saturated with highly educated workers, meaningful work in one’s field is difficult to find.

Sarah Langdon holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois but currently works as a waitress. Langdon was featured in the short documentary, “A Generation Lost in Space: Overeducated and Underemployed in America.” In the film, Langdon questions her rationale for going to college.

“Why did I even bother?” Langdon asked. “Why did I go to school? Why did I do any of this?  Because it’s not paying off at all, and I don’t know if it will at this point.”

Langdon’s pessimism is not without warrant. For many graduates, the process of looking for work can be frustrating, depressing and demoralizing. The longer professionals are away from their field, the greater chance that their profession will change in ways they find difficult to adapt to.  Without documented professional development, applicants appear to have fallen behind in their field and are automatically less competitive.

“I do less and less to change things every week just because I’m so frustrated,” says Langdon.  “So maybe I will just settle into being a 50-year-old waitress…but I don’t want that.”

Until recently, Doug Moon fell into the 25 percent of retail employees with bachelor’s degrees.  After earning his B.A. in English from the University of West Florida, Moon worked in a chain bookstore. While a degree in English may have helped when a customer needed a recommendation on the best Toni Morrison or Virginia Woolf novel, the degree was not a job requirement and did not net him higher pay than a high school graduate.

Besides working in a bookstore, with his degree, Moon cleaned cars for a rental company and held various jobs working on campus to support his endeavors while continuing his studies and earning his master’s degree.
“Perhaps my problem during graduate school is that I never thought of my degree in terms of career, and I was so enamored of the academic community and of the work I was doing there,” said Moon. “I didn’t take advantage of all of the opportunities in school to figure out how to financially sustain that continued participation in those communities.”

Since earning his M.A. in English, Moon has been working as an adjunct instructor teaching literature and English Composition at UWF.  Although many adjuncts work a considerable amount of hours and generally need an advanced degree to teach, these jobs are looked at as entry-level teaching jobs in the academy, paying only $2,000 per class. Categorized as part-time employees, many adjunct instructors easily work much more than 40 hours per week preparing for class, teaching, grading papers and meeting with students without benefits or union representation.

Despite all of this, working as an adjunct instructor is appealing to many for the experience alone.

Moon says that his ultimate career goal is to “eke out some earning by writing.” Still, he has a problem with the concept of a career. Moon says that a career “suggests, if not a straight line, a line plotted in a purposeful course across a series of points. I’ve been busy drawing shapes between the lines.”

Though Moon admits that there may be more opportunities for people with higher education outside of Pensacola, especially in the humanities, Moon says that this is just a starting point.
“Pensacola is a pretty early dot in the line.”

For Ayinde Hurrey, Pensacola was not the starting point but the destination. Originally from New York City, Hurrey grew up in North Carolina, where he eventually attended college to study the fine arts. Hurrey holds a B.A. in Theater from North Carolina Central College and a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in Acting from the University of Florida.

“The good thing with an MFA is that it gives you awesome training in your field, but the one thing that is hard to teach is to how to keep your income coming after school.”

Hurrey moved to Pensacola nearly a decade ago and has been active in the art scene and the local community ever since, most notably with his help during the annual Kwanzaa celebrations that take place throughout Pensacola. Hurrey teaches African drums and dance and is the founder of Hurrey-Up Productions, a local theater company that produces plays with a focus on plays by African-American playwrights or with African-American themes. His most recent productions were “The Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka and an original adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

Though Hurrey stays busy with a heavy teaching and performing schedule, money is often tight.

Hurrey spoke positively about his choice of study, but wished that there was more emphasis in school on how a graduate will make ends meet after graduation.

“You need to learn to survive, when times are good and when times are not so good.”

Hurrey has taught in New York, Gainesville and Pensacola, but survives largely through his own creativity.

“I’m constantly looking for the new project,” said Hurrey. “I have to do that to stay relevant and be able to make a living. “It keeps me creative, it keeps me fresher, keeps me looking for the new thing.”

Despite the possibility of a more secure line of work, Hurrey felt he had no choice in his field of study in college.

“I’d get bored with the 9-5,” said Hurrey. “I don’t think I could do it.”

Hurrey continues, “I’ve tried to do the other things, but this is all that makes me happy. Making an impact on the community through the arts, that’s all I want to do.”

During good economic conditions, survival as an artist has always been a struggle. During a recession, degree or not, times become even tougher.

“With the arts, you constantly have to keep fighting for what you love,” said Hurrey. “You’re always fighting for what you love, but there’s really no choice if you want to survive. You have to fight.”

What many of the graduates tend to forget is that if they have trouble finding work, there are places to turn. Locally, Workforce EscaRosa’s one-stop career center is a place where those searching for a job—or a better job than what they have—can turn for career counseling, computer training and veteran’s services. The one-stop career shop offers numerous programs to help potential workers find potential employers. These services are open to anyone in the community.
For college graduates looking for work, most colleges and universities have similar programs that are open to students and alumni alike. The University of West Florida is no exception.

Lauren Loeffler is the Director of Career Services at the University of West Florida. The role of career services is to help students and alumni prepare for a career in their field and eventually find work. At the outset of the recession, the job market did not look promising. However, that might be turning around. According to Loeffler, “more of our graduates are finding work at a faster pace than they were just a few years ago.”

Loeffler explained that there is typically a six month turnaround between graduation and employment. Although the UWF Career Services could not offer statistics on their success rate, Loeffler is confident in her department’s success. “We know that our program’s working, and we know that they’re [employers] hiring our students,” said Loeffler.

To track success, Loeffler says her department relies on workers and employers relaying their experiences back to Career Services, which she admits is not as thorough as they would like.  Nonetheless, Loeffler’s optimism about employers hiring graduates is with good reason.  According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, hiring for 2011 is expected to rise 19 percent from last year, including several new hires from a larger pool of interns for this year. Still, the unemployment rate is high, which makes grad school more appealing to those who have been unable to find work.

“Graduate student applications are up,” says Loeffler.

The rise in applicants to graduate schools is part of a nationwide trend. UWF has recently begun an aggressive advertising campaign to attract more college graduates to UWF’s various graduate programs, as evidenced by numerous billboards throughout the area. While many find graduate school appealing for its potential career benefits, many have returned to school as a refuge from the economy.

“People apply because they’re unable to find work,” says Loeffler. “They think because they cannot find a job, ‘I’ll go to grad school.’” Loeffler says that this is where her department does a good deal of work. “We help them [potential grad students] apply, write their letters of intent, find internships and get real-world experience so that the student can have relevant work experience that will help them.”

Internships, a vital component of many graduate studies programs, are an opportunity for students to work in their field while still attending school. However, many working students find internships difficult because they can last several months and are usually unpaid. Students living paycheck to paycheck, especially students with children or those working in the demanding service industry, often find it difficult to leave a job where they may take home $200 a night to work for no pay.

“It’s hard for people to break that cycle,” says Loeffler.

“We do have a lot of people who tell us that they simply cannot afford to give up their jobs waiting tables or bartending to take an unpaid internship.”

Another problem for those graduates looking for work in their field is that Pensacola still has a relatively small job market. “In our local area, we have a lot of smaller business,” said Loeffler. “When they grow, they only grow by one or two employees.” Small growth like this is hard for the recent college graduate, anxious to use the skills learned in school but with few job prospects on the horizon.

Loeffler adds that jobs requiring more technical experience than the average college graduate has are difficult to fill. “The jobs that employers are having trouble filling are very specific and usually require a special skill, foreign language or some unique skill.”

Besides specific technical or professional requirements, such unique skills or specific licenses, many unfilled jobs have language requirements that the average American student is not prepared to handle.

Although unemployment rates are still high and will probably remain high for the foreseeable future, a college degree still has its benefits, no matter what the field.

If he had to do it over again, Moon said that he would “absolutely” choose the same degree and the same field of studies. However, he might have done a few things a little different.

“I would definitely spend more time in college thinking about after college, advice which I brushed aside at the time.” Despite the low pay for the long hours teaching, preparing for classes, and grading papers for what may only be a little less than $10 an hour, Moon has no regrets and thinks of his degree as less of a ticket to financial success, but holds a higher value of his education.

“I don’t think any education speaks well enough for itself to entitle its owner to necessarily better work,” said Moon.

Sarah Langdon, the aspiring architect, felt the same, but answered with less enthusiasm.

“I probably still would have gone to college, even if I had known that things were going,” said Langdon. “What else was I going to do?”

Ayinde Hurrey has a realistic, but optimistic outlook and—as for his choice to go to college—said he couldn’t imagine doing anything different. “I was so passionate about the performing arts,” said Hurrey. “I chose back then that I wanted to do this full time, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m happy with my choice and happy with my life.”

Hurrey’s advice to those considering college when the degree might not be enough is simple: “pick something you’re passionate about.” Hurrey, whose Hurrey-Up Productions is planning to offer two plays by August Wilson in the near future, offers realistic advice to anyone thinking about higher education.

“I think it’s important that you pick what you love and take the risk. That’s exactly what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” says Hurrey. “It’s ok to pick something you’re passionate about—just be open for change.”

Scott Satterwhite is a freelance writer and teaches writing at Pensacola State College.
Lauren Anzaldo contributed to this article