At East Lansing restaurant, a portrait of post-college employment


As the U.S. economy is clawing its way out of the wreckage of the recent recession, unemployment rates continue to be a hot topic of discussion.

But another trend reflecting the job market is present — underemployment — and it's on the rise.

The term underemployment speaks to the idea that many citizens in states across the country are in an employment situation that has made them bereft by some standard. While this can refer to not being given enough hours at a job, it also can mean workers are overqualified for their position.

Corey Damocles / The State News
Corey Damocles / The State News

After graduation, some students find that despite having earned a degree, they work the same job previously used to pay for textbooks and tuition.

At Black Cat Bistro, an East Lansing restaurant, employees and MSU alumni provide insight that both affirm and deny the trend.

Success at first sight

Not every student who graduates from MSU with their chosen degree find themselves with a job on the career path they've worked toward.

Black Cat Bistro server and recent MSU alumnus Seth Zundel has found himself in one such situation.

It has been more than a year since he graduated last May 2013 with a bachelor's degree in English, a concentration in film studies and a minor in philosophy.  

He said he has run into impassable obstacles when it comes to the job hunt, a surprise considering his educational status.

Zundel said he thinks the high underemployment rates have more to do with location and less to do with the recession.

He has been unable to find a job in Michigan related to writing or film production.

In stark contrast with the heightened number of underemployed citizens, unemployment rates have gone down over the last few years, with Michigan ranking 44th in the country at a rate of 7.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Due to a lack of available, degree-related job opportunities for Zundel, he, like many others, will head back to school to earn a higher degree.

"You need a master's (degree) regardless ... (to get) a job," Zundel said.

For now, he said he works as a server because it's the most money he can make outside of his field.

"Right now I'm kind of in limbo," Zundel said. 

The real worth of a degree

Graduates who have not found themselves underemployed have typically earned at least a master's degree, Dean of the College of Education Donald Heller said.

"Certainly, in general people with master’s degrees are more likely to be employed," Heller said. "But for any single individual, they could have ... (poor) prospects."

Heller attributed the trend to the recession. 

He said he is familiar with national data and statistics on such trends, explaining that it makes finding a job difficult for those who are just graduating.

In October through December 2009, the underemployment rates of Americans who had achieved a master's degree or higher was at 2.2 percent, while 3.5 percent of those who earned a bachelor's degree were underemployed, according to the Monthly Labor Review released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that year. Leaving, in a total which combines many situations falling under the category of underemployment, more than 6 percent underemployed in 2009. 

But in recent data released this month, the total underemployment rate hit a total of 12.1 percent, according to seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in June this year. 

Black Cat Bistro general manager Tony Philip graduated from MSU in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in hospitality business.

After working at Dublin Square for six years, he graduated and went on to obtain a job at the Black Cat Bistro — a job relevant to his degree. Philip said he did not have a difficult time finding a job in his field because of his major.

"In our field, it's never hard to find a job," Philip said. "There's always someone hiring us ... always new places opening up." 

He said the difficulty of finding a job could be dependent on your particular degree. 

Flexibility for the future

However, not all university graduates have strictly been successful or unsuccessful in their job hunt.

Executive chef at Black Cat Bistro Jose Romero, an MSU alumnus who graduated with a Master of fine arts degree from the Lesley University College of Art and Design, in Cambridge, Mass., in 2001, said he cooked his way through school.

All the jobs that paid his way through school involved cooking, and although he graduated with the intent to become a professor or to continue painting, he found a career that was outside his original plan.

"I don't know if it is necessarily a problem," Romero said. "I still had to pay rent ... it just fell into place for me."

Romero said he enjoys his job as a chef and still gets to utilize his teaching and art skills in the kitchen, side by side with his employees.

"When one door closes, a bunch of different doors open," Romero said. "Just because one doesn't open right away doesn't mean ... your degree won't carry you to another field."

He said he chose to go on to earn a second degree not only to challenge himself but because what he encountered when he was looking for a job in his field was that employers were looking for greater education and more experience.

Romero said in his experience, the most useful tool in regard to looking for a job in his field has been networking.

"Create a network for yourself," Romero said. "You would be best served by surrounding yourself with people (who) work in those places that you're trying to get into."

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