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VOL. 39 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 22, 2015

What’s next? Has college really prepared its graduates for jobs

By Linda Bryant

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When Steven Baldwin started his freshman year at Austin Peay State University in 2012, he had a smart, carefully considered plan for his future.

He was going to earn a science-related degree tailored specifically to help APSU students get highly technical – and high-paying – jobs at Hemlock Semiconductor’s $1.2 million plant in Clarksville.

Two things happened:

The plant, one of the biggest commercial investments in Clarksville’s history, fell on hard times, eventually closing.

And Steven, 22, found himself struggling in physics and calculus classes.

Baldwin

“Sometimes I think they should offer a class called ‘Life After College,’ ” he says. “It would be super helpful to know more about life skills in general. We’ve been in school our entire lives. It can be terrifying to think about the future.’’

Baldwin, along with hordes of other Tennessee college graduates leaving four-year schools this spring, find themselves in what experts say is the best job market in years, and still there is anxiety, fear even, among young adults with a lifetime of earning a paycheck ahead of them.

Nothing is guaranteed in the job market. Unlike in generations past, a college degree on its own carries remarkable little weight in many fields, a result of rapidly changing technology that makes additional tech – or other specific kinds of training – almost mandatory.

Internships are highly competitive and don’t necessarily lead to full-time jobs, student loan debt pushes graduates to take low-paying jobs when they might be better served to pursue more training or go full-speed ahead on finding a career or training for one.

Baldwin’s “Life After College,’’ course may well be the answer as he and others like him ponder, worry, scramble and even procrastinate, as post-college graduation reality sets in.

Here are stories of how some Tennesseans, including Baldwin, are finding ways to meet the challenge.

There’s always the family business

Makai Edwards began his freshman year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville without a clue about a major. All knew for sure was that he didn’t want to spend four years getting a degree that had anything to do with his family’s 25-year-old landscape design business, Teacup Gardener, in his Nashville hometown.

Nashville native and University of Tennessee senior Makai Edwards thought he didn’t want anything to do with his family’s landscape design business until intriguing course work and a job at UT Gardens changed his mind. Now he’s going back to his roots.

-- Chase Malone | The Ledger

Now, almost four years later, the 22-year-old college senior has reversed course.

Edwards, 22, is on track to graduate from UT in 2016 with a degree in plant science. His game plan is to move back to Nashville and help his parents build and design outdoor spaces such as waterfalls, koi ponds, walkways, pathways and patios.

“I really went full circle, and just completely changed my mind,” Edwards says. “I started out freshman year and took some classes that just didn’t click. I took anatomy, and realized pretty quickly I wasn’t going to be a doctor. Economics didn’t click with me either.”

Eventually Edwards enrolled in classes that had a connection to the business he’d grown up around, and what he discovered stunned him. He didn’t just like his classes in horticulture, plant science and landscape design, he absolutely loved them. So much so, that they didn’t seem like work.

“It really did surprise me but plant science snowballed into something I really wanted to do,” Edwards says. “I don’t ever even consider skipping class.”

In early 2014, Edwards landed an internship at the University of Tennessee Gardens, a lavish botanical attraction with over 4,000 types of annuals, herbs, perennials, herbs, trees, shrubs, vegetables and ornamental grasses that attracts over 100,000 visitors a year. The internship eventually resulted in a paying job, and Edwards works part-time in the gardens while school is in session and full-time during the summer.

“I know it sounds corny, but I’ve found something that really makes me happy,” Edwards says. “I don’t really have concerns about whether or not I’m going to make a lot of money in this field, although I know I can make a living.

“I find it kind of sad that some students come to college so focused on the money side of things,” Edwards adds. “If I could tell students anything it would be to use the time at school to find out what you really love. I’m really lucky to have found it, and I feel aware of that every single day.”

Even though Edwards feels happy about his future, he does have a few concerns.

He’s a little worried about his school debt. Although he doesn’t owe as much as many of his friends because he had scholarship assistance, he calls student debt an issue “in the back of my mind.”

Edwards knows he’s going to have to continue learning after college in order to accomplish the high level of professional design that he wants to bring back to the family business.

“I haven’t even scratched the surface of how to use a computer to design (gardens and outdoor spaces),” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to take a class in it before I graduate, so I might have to do that after school or sit down and teach myself how to do it.”

An internship can break your heart

Taylor Mathews holds a newly-minted bachelor’s degree in marketing from Middle Tennessee State University. When the 22-year-old entered at MTSU she envisioned a career in the Christian music industry. As she gained experience and knowledge from classes and through internships, she slowly changed her mind.

Mathews is now poised to take a job in franchise sales at her father’s Franklin-based sales consulting firm, Franchise Performance Group.

Taylor Mathews stands out in a crowd of MTSU graduates. Even with a successful internship in the entertainment field, she discovered the business is too competitive and will go to work for in her father’s sales consulting firm in Franklin.

-- Submitted: Joe Mathews

“I’m really satisfied with my education and my experiences, with everything that’s gotten me to this point,” says Mathews. “Still, it hasn’t always been easy. When you are at a state school, no one holds your hand. There are a lot of opportunities, but you have to go after them.”

Like many of today’s college students, Mathews pursued an internship she found out about through school. She completed a successful internship at Mike Atkins Entertainment in Cool Springs, a prominent artists’ management firm that works with high-profile entertainers in the Christian music business such as Sandi Patty, Nicole C. Muller and Jaci Velasquez.

Mathews was thrilled with the work at Mike Atkins because she gained hands-on experience working with many kinds of people – from the CEO to the artists themselves. Disappointed when a second music industry internship fell through, she slowly started to realize she might be a better good fit with her dad’s business.

“I hadn’t thought that much about it before, but after I worked at his business last year, I realized that franchise sales are a great opportunity,” say Mathews. “I started to see how it fits me.

“The music business is very competitive,” Mathews adds. “I had another music industry internship that didn’t work out, and I started to think, ‘maybe this is happening for a reason.’ I took it as a sign.”

Mathews recommends internships, but cautions students to remain realistic about them.

“Not everyone can get an internship, and they don’t guarantee a job,” she says. “Even a college degree doesn’t guarantee a job like it did in past generations. But you can take what you’ve learned and continue to apply it wherever you go.

In her new position, Mathews will have a key role in helping the I Love Juice Bar franchise, a young start-up company, and build locations all over the country.

“I feel lucky because I have such a good option, but a lot of my friends still don’t quite know what they want to do,” Mathews says. “Finding jobs is still a lot harder than it used to be. I have a friend who graduated last year who still can’t find work. I know a top engineer student who took five months to find a job.

“Still, for a lot of us it’s been easy,” Mathews adds. “We’ve been going to the cafeteria to eat, going to class and doing homework. We’ve had pretty trivial worries, and now it’s time to enter the real world.’’

Using a major as a stepping stone

Cameron Griggs-Posey has been deliberate and focused about her college education at Belmont University. Like many students trying to meet the ever-increasing expenses of a college education,

Griggs-Posey has worked as a nanny while going to school full-time. She also lived at home for most of her time at Belmont to minimize expenses and save money.

Cameron Griggs-Posey graduated from Belmont University with a communications degree, but wants to give Hollywood a try.

“I’ve worked since I was 13,” says Griggs-Posey. “I had to work all the way through Belmont to be able to afford it.”

Griggs-Posey graduated from Belmont on May 9 with a degree in corporate communications and public relations. She doesn’t have immediate plans to use her major to look for a corporate job, even though she’s completed three entertainment industry-related internships that prepared her for dealing with many business and organizational sides of the industry.

Griggs-Posey has something more ambitious in mind.

Her goal is to move to Los Angeles by the end of the year to pursue an acting career. If it sounds like a quantum leap for her, it’s really not. It was her plan all along.

But why the communications degree?

“I wanted to a degree that would apply to entertainment industry, and I wanted to learn the business side of things, ” says Griggs-Posey. “I wanted to learn these types of things because I thought they’d help me manage my own career.

“I’m very serious about my goals, and I mean business (about pursuing acting). I really don’t want to have a Plan B,” she adds. “But if things don’t work out I can use the degree to get a job in publicity.”

Griggs-Posey loved her classes at Belmont and says her three entertainment internships were highlights of her time at the school. She worked with the Country Music Association in Nashville and Warner Brothers Movies and Lionsgate Entertainment in Los Angeles.

“My advice to students (and recent graduates) is to find what your passion is, and find the people who’ll help you either find it or develop it,” say Griggs-Posey. “Internships are competitive, but I’d still say pursue as many of them as you can. They help you make connections that can lead to a job later on. You’ll meet people who’ve seen you work hard, and that can go a long way for you.”

When Griggs-Posey interned at Lionsgate she worked on the world premiere of the hit movie Divergent.

“I learned so much that I never would have learned in a class,” she says. “I learned more about how to work in high-stress situations, how to problem solve and figure things out on my own and how to deal with clientele. It made me a lot more confident.”

When she gets to LA, Griggs-Posey says one of the first things she’ll do is reach out to connections she made during her internships. She’ll almost certainly need to have a side job to support the life of an aspiring actress.

“I’m so glad to be finally finished with school,” she says. “For the first time in my life I don’t have a set agenda. I don’t have to write another paper. I’m completely terrified and excited at the same time.”

Baldwin’s Plan B

Baldwin had to regroup: “The whole thing – Hemlock’s deal with Clarksville and my initial plan – just kind of fell apart.’’

He was forced to step back, and “started to look at subjects I’m really good at. I realized I’d always excelled at history, and that I’d always wanted to be a coach. I started to think about making a difference in people’s lives, and teaching really started to make a lot of sense.”

He will begin his required stint as a student teacher this fall and is set to graduate in December. Even then, finding a job might be difficult.

“Tennessee is in the Top 10 worst paying states for teaching, so I’m considering applying in other places, especially Illinois or the Northeast where teaching jobs pay a lot better,” he says.

While new teachers with APSU education degrees used to have an almost-guaranteed pipeline to Clarksville public school system jobs, Baldwin says that’s no longer the case.

“There’s a hiring freeze on teaching jobs in Clarksville,” he says. “APSU grads are having to seek employment elsewhere.”

Baldwin expects to start applying for teaching jobs in the fall. Although he’s not 100 percent sure he’s prepared, he’s hopeful.

“I have about $15,000 in school debt, and I’d like to get that paid off as soon as possible,” Baldwin adds. “I hope I don’t have to move back home to do it. I think that might be a step back.”

Baldwin went to Smyrna High School after attending a technology-focused magnet school grades 2-8. He says the experience gave him an advantage when it comes to using and understanding technology on the job. Regardless, he says it’s a challenge to keep up with technology demands, even in the teaching profession.

“Technology is more important than it ever was, and many things you learn in your freshman year are no longer relevant by the time you are a senior,” he says. “That’s something I’m always going to have to consider and stay on top of.”

Baldwin also thinks pursuing a master’s degree is inevitable.

“It’s almost expected for a teacher to get a master’s degree,” he says. “You need one to stay competitive. I’m looking for a teaching program that will help me pay for a master’s.”

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