When I graduated from library school, the first thing I did was take a retail cake decorating job in order to pay my student loans and afford to live on my own again while I hunted for library jobs. That search has now been in progress for 18 months, and I’ve noticed a surprisingly high number of people in my situation – college graduates working unskilled positions in retail.
I’m the only MLIS holder I know of at my company, but my peers include those with degrees in computer technology, photography, education, philosophy, business and nursing. They’ve either taken jobs in retail while waiting out a bad job market and trying to find work in their field, or sought higher education after putting in time at the company and realizing that working every weekend and holiday until retirement isn’t their idea of a white picket fence. For one reason or another, though, a lot of us are getting stuck.
Some find jobs in their fields only to suffer a kind of separation anxiety, afraid to leave the retail nest where they’ve racked up time, vacation hours, and most importantly seniority, and they end up working both jobs. It’s a legitimate concern – in the time I’ve spent with my current company, I’ve earned seniority over at least five new-hire decorators. When I find my coveted library job, as happy as I will be to have it, I’ll be instantly shifted to the bottom rung, the most vulnerable place to be in a shaky economy.
Others realize in the midst of their job hunt that their degree hasn’t adequately prepared them for practical experience, and that hiring attitudes have changed from ten or twenty years ago when having a degree sometimes mattered more than the subject studied. You may have a degree in English (a-hem!) but without internships, practicums and connections you’re no more able to earn a living as a writer than if you hadn’t gone to college. One great thing about cake decorating is that anyone with a high school diploma and a willingness to learn can be trained on the job in an apprenticeship program and in just six months work their way up from the minimum wage to skilled laborer status.
Yet another hurdle in escaping retail is complacency – an issue I know very well. For the first few months, I spent my days cake decorating and my evenings job hunting. I was very serious about finding a librarian job and applying what I’d learned in graduate school; plus, decorating hurt my hand and my boss was a nightmare. Then I started to get the swing of things, my techniques improved, I learned cool icing tricks, I built rapport with my coworkers, and I liked how fast the days went when I wasn’t behind a desk. I got complacent and my job hunt slackened. Now that I’m back on my game, the going is tougher and I have to try harder to make up for it.
So what’s the result of an increasing college-educated population in retail? In a nutshell, displacement. There’s someone in the job market right now with a high school diploma and a desire to be a cake decorator, and I’m taking their place. I’ve got an MLIS and I’d love a librarian position, but there’s a more experienced librarian taking my place and waiting for a management position to open up. Perhaps the managing librarian is waiting to retire but is afraid because of the uncertainty of the economy. It all trickles down, creating a situation where overqualified people take the jobs others need, where the average number of college-educated retail employees multiplies, and we end up getting stuck. But hey, at least I can decorate a mean cake now!