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More College Graduates Are Getting Stuck in the Service Industry as Opportunities Become Scarce 

In the weeds

As Mandy Smart stands behind the bar, a printer buzzes nearby, informing her that more drink orders are up. The orders come from the servers on the floor, but the cocktails are her responsibility. She reaches for the ticket, and a customer calls for her attention. He asks about the drink specials.

Halfway through her answer, the printer buzzes again. While the picky customer makes his decision, Smart glances at the ticket: an Old-Fashioned.

She drops an orange slice into the bottom of a tall, stainless steel shaker. After adding a dash of bitters and simple syrup, she begins muddling the ingredients into the bottom of the cup. "One.. two.. three.. four.. five.. six..," she counts steadily to herself as she pours in whiskey. She adds ice and shakes vigorously until the mixture is ready to be strained into a rocks glass with a single, large ice cube.

"Just give me your favorite IPA," the impatient customer interrupts.

Smart, 24, always dreamed of having a job where she was dealing with people, but this isn't quite what she had in mind.

There are many like Smart in the workforce: young, college-educated wannabe professionals who get stuck in the service industry — often in restaurants and bars — working jobs that don't require a degree because they pay better and are easier to come by than the entry-level positions they went to school for. Charlotte residents Jon Rhodes and Addie Toscano are two others who have taken different paths but found themselves in similar situations to Smart.

Mandy Smart working at the restaurant in SouthPark where she tends bar and serves. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Mandy Smart working at the restaurant in SouthPark where she tends bar and serves. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Although the sales jobs Smart has applied for are closer to her field of study than bartending, taking one of those positions would be a risk she literally can't afford.

"Right now, I make twice as much bartending as I would in a sales job. I can't afford to pay my bills at $12 an hour," she says. "I don't want to be bartending, but I have to. I feel stuck."

Dr. Jaime Bochantin, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who studies generational differences in the workplace, says the number of millennial college graduates like Smart who are struggling to find a suitable job with their degree has increased in recent years because of the resurgence of college enrollment during the Great Recession.

According to Bochantin, in 2011 the pressure to become more competitive in a workforce that had few available jobs led to 2.3 million adults enrolling in college. As a result, today's college graduates now compete against individuals who have experience younger generations do not have. With an estimated 3 million graduates expected to enter the workforce in the spring of 2018, the competition will only intensify, she said.

Nearly 35 percent of people 25 and older now have at least a bachelor's degree. That's the highest the number has ever been. Only about 20 percent of people in that same age group had degrees in 1990. The value of a master's degree has become equivalent to what a bachelor's degree once was, raising expectations for students who want to be competitive in their careers.

Smart, under pressure from her parents and peers, enrolled in college before she even knew what career she wanted. Now, she spends her days applying for jobs and working late hours as both a server and bartender. She anticipated that what she now calls "just a piece of paper" that she earned after four years at UNC Charlotte would land her the job and financial security her elders had assured her of.

"I knew I wanted to make a lot of money, and my dad was in business, so I wanted to follow in his footsteps," Smart said. "My goal was to get through college with good grades, graduate and get a job I could work my way up in."

During her junior year of college, Smart finally decided to focus on business marketing in hopes that she would eventually find a job as an event coordinator. Since graduation, however, she has only been offered sales positions at companies like Red Ventures, where she says a lot of her former classmates are miserable.

Smart struggled to find a well-paying, entry-level job because of her lack of experience. "I applied for so many jobs and the only positions I would get callbacks for were ones that didn't even require a degree," she said. "It was discouraging."

Since she graduated nearly two years ago, Smart has yet to maintain a position in her field of study, despite her persistent job searching. She applies for at least two jobs a week and hopes bartending will help her network into a new job by connecting her with someone who can get her where she wants to be.

Smart's feeling of discouragement hasn't left her.

"I think society expects you to graduate high school, then pushes you to go to college when you're not ready," she said. If she could do it over, Smart said she would have waited until she was ready to decide her future.

Smart's lack of experience is a common challenge for the younger generation of graduates now entering the workforce, according to Bochantin. While obtaining a bachelor's degree was once an advantage, Bochantin believes undergraduate education is not going to cut it anymore.

"It's a double-edged sword because they won't give you a job without experience, but you can't get experience without a job," Bochantin explained. However, Bochantin said she believes internship programs solve this problem because they provide students with experience and increase their chances of landing a full-time job by 20 percent.

That's exactly what Jon Rhodes did. Unfortunately, internships do not solve all the problems facing graduates entering the workforce.

Rhodes, a 27-year-old North Charleston native turned Charlottean, discovered his passion for culinary arts as early as high school. He forked out the money for tuition and committed to Johnson & Wales University, confident that the financial burden of attending one of the top culinary art schools would pay off.

Like many other recent graduates, Rhodes anticipated that the time and money he dedicated to his degree would result in a job. He was in for a big surprise.

Rhodes graduated from Johnson & Wales in 2012 with an associate's degree in culinary arts and a bachelor's in food and beverage management. Five years later, he's still paying off loans for a tuition that cost him more than the $43,000 he now averages in a single year.

After graduation, his unpaid internship at a hotel turned into a full-time, paid position. "I loved the job itself because I got to do something new every day, I got to meet cool people and they offered great benefits," Rhodes said. "But, I was only making $10.50 an hour. It wasn't worth it."

Rhodes has worked a bevy of jobs trying to get his foot in the door, with or without the help of a degree. He's worked as a line cook, server, bartender and restaurant manager. Although restaurant management gave him experience he needed, it did not compensate for the high stress and low salary.

Jon Rhodes working in Uptown on a recent Sunday. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Jon Rhodes working in Uptown on a recent Sunday. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

"I was busting my ass and barely making it," he said. "I went back to bartending because I was making more money, had more free time and had less stress."

While bartending last year, a teaching job fell into Rhodes' lap. His old high school needed a new culinary arts instructor — a position he was more than qualified to fill.

"I was nervous at first because this was 'the real thing' for me, and I had never imagined teaching what I love to kids that were only 10 years younger than me," Rhodes explained. "It ended up being the best job I could've imagined."

After a year of building relationships with his students at what he thought was a dream job, the financial burden of the pay cut he took for the gig became too much to bear. "I was making more bartending than on a teaching salary," he said. "I felt like my dreams were crushed and that I let my students down."

He was forced back into bartending and restaurant management — both positions that don't even require the college education he had paid so dearly for.

"Knowing what I know now, I honestly think I would've pursued radiology and kept culinary arts as a passion on the side," Rhodes said.

He loves what he does and makes enough money to support himself, but his income is not enough to provide for anybody else. He said it's preventing him from starting a family and moving forward with his life.

Looking back, Rhodes is disappointed that he has not reaped better rewards from his top-notch education. When people ask him what he does for a living, he hates telling them. After all the time he has put into the industry — sometimes working 16-hour days, six days a week — and the more than $140,000 he spent on tuition, Rhodes said he wants to have a job he can brag about instead of a job that wastes his college degree.

The immense student loan is not a problem that Rhodes faces alone, especially as job competition is forcing students to go to school even longer. This rising student loan debt is why graduates like Smart and Rhodes end up settling for and maintaining jobs that do not require a degree.

According to the Pew Research Center, 21 percent of adults ages 25 to 39 that have student loan debt and at least a bachelor's degree are working more than one job. While student loans are a reasonable investment if they ultimately lead to a higher income, the increasing standards of educational attainment necessary to be competitive in the job market is causing graduates to spend significantly more time paying off debt — and forcing graduates like Rhodes to reevaluate the cost of his investment.

And there are countless Charlotteans out there like him, racked with debt and doubt, wondering what could have been.

Since Addie Toscano was a child, she dreamed of having a career in the medical field. "The human body always interested me. I wanted to be able to fix it," she said.

Before beginning her career as a nurse, Toscano, now 38, spent time in the military so she could pursue college without the financial burden of tuition. She was later medically discharged because of a knee injury, and after spending six months in rehab, she moved back to Charlotte where she earned her bachelor's degree in nursing at UNC Charlotte.

"I spent over a year working in the trauma center at [Carolinas Medical Center], but it weighs very heavily you," Toscano said. "A lot of people don't last long in that department. There's a lot of death and it got to be too much."

She decided to take a break.

Toscano planned on using her time off to decide on another nursing department where she could pursue work. However, she began making more money as a bartender than she was making as a nurse salary. Her new job had a flexible schedule, and eventually she was promoted to bar manager.

"Did I ever think my career would be restaurant management instead of nursing? Never," Toscano said. "With me being a single mom, it just worked better."

Toscano decided to make the best of her new opportunity, and chose to go back to school in hopes that it would give her the knowledge she needed to one day open her own restaurant.

She took academic classes in business and restaurant management at UNC Charlotte, as well as Continuing Education courses in mixology, cicerone and sommelier.

"I didn't need to go back to school. You can learn all of that just by being in a restaurant, but it takes a lot of time and I wanted to take the extra step," Toscano said. "Managing for other people and running their restaurants makes me realize that I know how to do this, and I want to do this for myself."

The value Toscano ultimately placed on the educational experience over the simple attainment of a degree is something Bochantin thinks is critical for college students. The emphasis being placed on a degree as a "means to an end" is causing students to enroll in college for the wrong reasons.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than 43 percent of minimum wage workers have at least some college education. With so many college-educated adults slipping through the cracks, it is not hard to imagine why many in this generation of students are reconsidering the value of a degree. While the "piece of paper" may no longer be enough, once the focus of college is back on education there is hope for other generations of students, according to Bochantin.

For now, Toscano manages someone else's business while waiting to get approved for her own small business loan.

Rhodes is still in the industry and sells banana puddings on the side for his friend's food truck.

As for Smart — for the time being she will just be waiting for that buzz to tell her what drink to make.

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