Ninety-nine young women walked across Bennett College for Women's graduation stage on May 9, ninety-nine exuberant achievers who have cleared one life hurdle and now have to gear up for another. There are scientists going to study microbiology, aspiring lawyers heading to Indiana University and the University of Iowa, social workers headed to the University of Pittsburgh and Simmons College, an urban planner going to the University of Illinois, a budding journalist headed to Columbia University.
Some students are planning to work. And a good number are planning to look for work. But where will they look and what will they find in this challenging 2009 labor market?
Just a day before students graduated, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released unemployment rate data, announcing that unemployment rates are still rising, reaching an official rate of 8.9 percent in April.
That official rate translates into 15.8 percent when all of the people who work part time but want to work full time are counted along with the people who have just stopped looking for work. The rates are more staggering when we look at other populations. The official rate is 15 percent for African Americans and 11.3 percent for Latinos.
If 8.9 percent translates into 15.8 percent for the overall population, then the 15 percent black unemployment rate translates into 26.6 percent. More than one in four African Americans is out of work.
Because the labor market is dynamic, there are still jobs out there and companies hiring, and there are opportunities in every economy. The team at Bennett has been stressing preparation for students who want to enter the world of work. That means impeccable resumes, top-notch interview skills, overwhelmingly positive attitudes, and flexible spirits. And it means a willingness to jump into a job with energy, enthusiasm, and gratitude.
Even with all those positive attributes, however, the economy is the context, the water in which we swim. Right now, we are swimming in some mighty muddy water.
Some would say it is less muddy than it has been – while more than half a million jobs were lost in April, that's the lowest level of job loss we have experienced so far this year. Further, President Obama has asked states to change their unemployment insurance rules so that people who are unemployed and in school for job retraining can keep their unemployment benefits.
That's good news – presently, people have to prove they are looking for work, and their time can often be better spent training for a different line of work.
What does this mean for Bennett students, and for the 1.5 million young people who will complete college this year? Some will find themselves working in unpaid or low paid internships, amassing experience until the economy turns around. Others will go to graduate or professional school if they find the job market uninviting.
Still others will have to make compromises, working not at their "dream" job, but at a job that will help them pay their bills. The average college graduate shoulders more than $20,000 in student loan debt that they must begin to repay just 6 months after graduation.
Give the weakness of the labor market; the Department of Education might want to allow students a year or 18 months before beginning to repay those loans.
College career service and alumni offices must also do whatever we can to share job opportunities with our new graduates. The networks that they developed while in college will keep connections strong after graduation. And the students who learned to develop their networks will do best in the job market.
High unemployment rates notwithstanding, employers are hiring even as they lay people off. The Class of 2009 faces a far more competitive labor market than any graduating class has faced in the last decade or so.
And if they unemployment rates are any indication, African-American graduates face stiffer competition than others. Those of us who encouraged these students to chase the brass ring of an undergraduate degree are now charged with helping them make the degree meaningful through work or graduate school.
Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org