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By Chip Cutter and Lauren Weber
John Dodge never planned a career in insurance. The financial meltdown 10 years ago pushed him into it.
Mr. Dodge was a senior at Louisiana State University in 2009, majoring in marketing and hoping to work in real estate. Instead, he began selling insurance, on commission, at Aflac Inc. in Baton Rouge, La. With no base salary or health insurance, he had to hustle. Within a year, he was promoted to district sales coordinator and by 2012 his annual earnings topped $250,000, he said.
Mr. Dodge now runs his own employee-benefits communications and enrollment firm with a partner. AGM Benefit Solutions LLC has 18-full-time workers, three offices and 250 contractors. He said gritting it out in that first job proved to be a career accelerant.
"That opportunity was really, really what you made of it," he said.
A decade ago, many college graduates struggled to join a recession-wracked workforce and were quickly dubbed Generation Jobless. Looking back, some, like Mr. Dodge, now see benefits to entering the workforce in a down market. They say the weak economy provided unexpected career twists and forced them to sharpen their skills. Others, though, say their first decade in the working world was marked by low wages, disappointment and a feeling of being left behind.
Cynthia Roberts, now 31, graduated in 2009 with about $65,000 in student loans and a degree in new-media marketing from the Rochester Institute of Technology. She hoped for a career in advertising.
In the past decade, Ms. Roberts has worked at a bowling alley and music venue in New York, as a gate agent for Delta Air Lines Inc. in Providence, R.I., and as manager of a high-end salon in Boston. In her 20s, she lived at times with an aunt and her mother. In 2015, Ms. Roberts got hired for $14 an hour as a leasing agent for a Massachusetts property-management company and has worked her way up to a salaried position as a community director, overseeing one of its largest apartment complexes.
Ms. Roberts hasn't made payments on her student loans, which now total $82,000 because of interest costs and additional loans.
"I'm behind," she said. "And I'm still playing catch-up."
Economists have long pointed to the dangers of beginning a career in a downturn. College grads who entered the job market during the recession of the early 1980s had, 15 years after graduation, wages that were 2.5% lower than graduates who didn't start out in a downturn, according to research by Lisa Kahn, a University of Rochester.
Workers entering the labor force when unemployment is high often can't find the jobs they want, "so they make tough choices in order to make ends meet, often ending up at low-paying or smaller employers," said Till von Wachter, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "They recover by moving up to better employers, but it takes time to find the better firm or better fit."
Lindsey Snyder, 32, finished her master's degree in elementary education at Northwestern University in 2009. An internship at Chicago's Field Museum led to a full-time job at the natural history museum overseeing Dozin' with the Dinos sleepovers for families. But the recession had an unexpected silver lining for her, as she survived cutbacks in the museum's education department: "The tasks that needed to happen didn't shrink, so I started wearing more and more hats," she said.
A sympathetic boss found money for a small raise in recognition of her extra responsibilities, but her hourly rate still didn't top $20. She was promoted in 2012 with a larger raise as administrator of the museum's unusual learning collection, where members can borrow items like a stuffed snowy owl or a cast of a dinosaur skull.
Now living in Ferndale, Wash., with her husband and three children, Ms. Snyder is pursuing a doctorate in pedagogy at the University of British Columbia in nearby Vancouver. Looking back, she said being a new graduate during the recession worked to her advantage because it gave her a chance to shine even though the financial rewards were scant.
"A lot of times the newbie gets to stay because the newbie isn't getting paid as much," she said.
Even 2009 grads who consider it a net positive to have started their careers in one of the worst job markets in memory often wonder how their lives might have been different under more favorable circumstances.
Had a company offered Mr. Dodge in New Orleans a full-time job paying $60,000 when he graduated, he would have been tempted to take it.
"If the market was good, and there were offers on the table, it would create some questions of taking an easier road," he said.
Ms. Roberts, the property manager, said there is a certain irony to her position now. She is interviewing new graduates for entry-level leasing positions, and many won't return her calls or can't remember which company she is with because they are getting so many calls from potential employers. Some, hours after submitting an application online, say they already have another job lined up, she said.
If there is an upside, it's that Ms. Roberts can relate to tenants going through their own financial hardships.
"If I had never experienced not being able to pay my own rent, I don't think I would be as caring or understanding," she said. "I feel like I grew up very quickly."
Write to Chip Cutter at email@example.com and Lauren Weber at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 25, 2019 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)
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