College Degree No Shield As More Jobs Are Slashed

Nena Razmara, who was laid off in November, has sent out more than 150 résumés and posted one under the heading,
Nena Razmara, who was laid off in November, has sent out more than 150 résumés and posted one under the heading, "I desperately need a job." (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009

When Nena Razmara was laid off in November from her $70,000-a-year job with a high-end residential building supplier, she thought she would be working again by Christmas.

Having worked in residential construction for 20 years, she was used to finding work by flipping through her Rolodex.

"Usually it's three phone calls, three job offers, and off you go," she said.

The 45-year-old Woodbridge resident made her three phone calls. Then three more. But she still had no leads. For the first time since she graduated from college in the 1980s, she scoured help-wanted ads. She sent out more than 150 résumés and posted one on Craigslist under the heading, "I desperately need a job."

In ordinary times, a college degree goes a long way toward securing employment, even during a recession. It also offers some measure of job security: Workers with at least a college diploma are less likely to lose their jobs in down times. But college grads such as Razmara are now finding that a postsecondary education isn't necessarily enough.

In fact, labor economists say the unemployment rate for workers with a bachelor's degree or higher is poised to hit a record high. This recession is so far-reaching, they contend, few are immune from the consequences.

"In a flood everyone gets swept away," said Lawrence Mishel, an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

In November, the unemployment rate among workers with a college degree or higher reached 3.1 percent. While that figure is modest compared with the national unemployment rate of 6.7 percent -- and nowhere near the 10.5 percent unemployment rate among those without a high school diploma -- it hasn't been that high since 2003. Because the unemployment rate tends to lag behind other economic indicators, analysts think unemployment among college-educated workers is likely to surpass 4 percent, which would be the highest rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking unemployment by education level in 1970.

College-educated workers have steadily become more vulnerable to economic downturns since the 1980s, as employers have resorted to cutting middle managers and older workers who may be more expensive. Older and more educated workers lost their jobs at a higher rate during the recession of the early '90s than in the recession of the early '80s, although younger, less-educated workers still had the highest rates of job losses, according to research by Princeton University economics professor Henry Farber.

College-educated workers "are more vulnerable than they used to be, but historically they've had an easier time in terms of how long it takes them to find a job," Farber said.

The current recession is proving to be broader than the previous two in 1990-91 and 2001, affecting a wider range of industries and workers, economists said.

Government data suggest that since March, the job market for college-educated workers has become weaker than their unemployment rate indicates, said Alan B. Krueger, another Princeton economist.

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