Life After College: Underemployment and You

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Egg frying on the grill

It shouldn't come as a shock to most people that the job market is a tumultuous one these days. As a recent college graduate I can attest to that fact. Trying to find that first "real" job is an exhausting experience, full of disappointment and frustration.

I, like many of my peers who have recently graduated, found myself in a tricky situation about six months out of school. My first loan payments were due and the part-time office job I had wasn't providing me the hours or the wages I needed. I looked for a job, any job, that would provide me a steady paycheck. I ended up in a hospital cafeteria, cooking, just like the part-time job I worked through college.

Youth unemployment and underemployment is at its highest points in 20+ years. I hear stories on a weekly basis on National Public Radio as I drive to and from my cooking job about others like me. It is an epidemic which will have some serious ramifications in the future. The real challenge for recent graduates is the need to pay student loans which far outstrip the jobs available, and a market where experienced older generations are competing for the same entry level positions as we are. As such, I have some insights about what it is like to be stuck in an underemployment rut.

The pay isn't particularly good.

When I started cooking, it was as a part-time employee with the opportunity to pick up just about as many shifts as I wanted. I got a rude surprise when I got my first paycheck. Making about $10 an hour isn't too bad to begin with, but my part-time designation (working 30+ hours) made it so I also had benefits, which subtracted a staggering amount every month from my pay. I was losing about $300 a month to pay for health insurance. My actual income ended up being between $700-900 a month, which was not enough to pay my student loans every month (which came in at about $1,400), let alone afford anything else.

To get around this problem I decided to have my employee designation changed to "relief." I would lose my benefits, but gain about $3 an hour in wages. I need health insurance, so I have been taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act's change in how long children can stay on parents' health insurance, which is to the age of 26.

The hours will be tiresome.

I have always tried to be an exemplary employee wherever I am working. This did not change when I started cooking. As part of my new relief employee designation I started covering a wide variety of shifts. I soon found myself working mornings, afternoons, evenings, weekends, overnights and an amusing combination of all of them. My schedule has never been consistent, but I took on the burden as a way of ensuring I could pay my loans every month.

Working overnights has been the biggest challenge as it leaves you very little energy to work on applications, cover letters and resumes for "real" jobs. Your body clock is basically working against the rest of the working world.

Just as a recent example: Last week I started work on Monday at 6:30am, Tuesday 11:30 pm, Delivered magazines on Wednesday, Thursday 6:30 am, Friday 10:30 pm, Saturday 10 pm I was all over the place; it is hard to keep track of life when you're committed to working like that.

Your co-workers might be challenging to bond with.

Probably the most overwhelming sensation I have gotten in working foodservice is that of regret. My co-workers, many of whom I am good friends with and have enjoyed getting to know, are stuck in their career. They will be cooking for the rest of their lives and they know it. Everyone where I work has some level of dissatisfaction with their job, many have just given up.

This is frustrating for a number of reasons. The first being that people stop caring about being good teammates. Cooking is a team effort. There are a number of steps to delivering good food and good service to customers. Many people I work with don't care about that anymore; they are only interested in the very minimum effort to complete the day and go home. The second is that it is very difficult to have a positive attitude toward work. Getting up in the morning, or evening, knowing that very few of your co-workers is ready with a smile on their face is toxic. It feeds a culture of dissatisfaction and it can be very challenging to separate that from home.

There will be little chance of a vacation and little time for a social life.

It seems obvious, but working all the time to pay loans every month leaves little opportunity for time off. In my nearly two years cooking I have taken one week-long vacation. Having no time to get away from work and take a break is exhausting and disheartening. It makes you question why you went to college in the first place.

I also have discovered that working overnight really doesn't allow for any social life. My Saturday nights have almost always been spent over a grill making omelets and breakfast burritos. This makes it kind of tough to meet new people.

It will end eventually.

In a remarkable bit of timing, I got some very good news last week. I got a job offer! After about two years of submitting applications, occasionally getting interviews and generally being tired of rejection, I am starting that "real" job I have been dreaming of. There will be more on this new development later. I still have plenty of experiences from the last two years to share!

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