Job Seeker's Approach Is a Sign of The Times

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009

After relentlessly pounding the industrial carpet at scores of job fairs, firing off hundreds of cover letters and knocking on dozens of doors since November, Michael Volpe was desperate.

The 25-year-old college graduate with a degree in physics and a couple of years with the Peace Corps is learning that the nation's capital is also the networking capital. And if you don't know the right people, landing a job can be daunting.

This week, he took his job search in a new direction, standing outside downtown D.C. Metro stops during morning rush hour with a sign around his neck reading, "ENTRY LEVEL JOB SEEKER."

"When you're out there with a sign around your neck, you can't get any lower," allowed Volpe, who is soft-spoken and finds it challenging to muster up the courage for a public crusade.

Last week, he realized he had to get more aggressive: "At this point, it's not like I can lose anything. Especially my pride."

On Wednesday morning, his battered pride took another hit as he became the butt of commuter humor.

"Ha! You're good for a morning laugh, at the very least!" howled a lawyer who shifted her armload of case files and held up her camera phone. "Let me snap a quick pic of you."

Volpe straightened his sage green tie, then his bright orange sign and gamely managed a tight smile for the photo. "Can I give you my résumé, please? I'm interested in any position in the fields of energy, environment . . . " The woman cut him off. "Oh, I can't do anything for you. I work for the government. But good luck!"

He has applied, among other places, at the Department of Energy, the State Department, USAID, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and scores of nongovernmental organizations.

He walked into the offices of National Geographic with his résumé. They suggested that he volunteer as an usher in their movie theater.

Volpe had a few more-promising interactions in his four-day barnstorming of commuter haunts.

One man sought him out at the Metro station at Judiciary Square. "Hey, guy who's looking for a job! My boss sent me out to find you," said a D.C. government employee, who said did not want to be identified because he is not allowed to speak to the media. "Your phone number is on here, right? On your résumé? We'll get back to you," the man told Volpe.

Volpe is part of a growing pool of jobless college graduates age 25 and older who are unemployed. As of April, it's 4.4 percent, which is small compared with the 13.3 percent of the same demographic with no college degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But it's double the rate of April 1999. And it smacks of a broken promise to people such as Volpe, who comes from a working-class background in New York and thought he would reap the benefits of his college years.

"I naively thought I'd have my choice of jobs," he said.

The son of a schoolteacher and a construction worker, Volpe grew up in Tarrytown, N.Y., where the Tappan Zee Bridge crosses the Hudson River and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was set.

He learned the lessons of hard work with his father on construction sites and behind the cash register of a local grocer. That experience pushed him to work even harder at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he minored in mathematics and was a member of the physics honor society Sigma Pi Sigma. He worked as a Peace Corps teacher in South Africa for two years, then spent last summer restoring hiking trails in Utah with AmeriCorps.

He figured his academics, his work as an astronomy lab assistant and math tutor and his foreign service would serve him well in his search for a Washington job.

"It turns out I landed here at absolutely the worst time ever," he lamented.

Volpe has rented a room in a house in Shaw and rides his bike to job fairs, offices and his Metro outposts.

He didn't tell his parents ahead of time about his new approach to his job search.

"He calls me this week and says, 'You'll never believe what I did in my search for a job today,' and then he goes on to describe himself standing with this sign," said his mother, Helene Volpe.

"He made me giggle yesterday. He called to update me and told me there was a panhandler getting in on his corner."

So far, he has had occasional bites. Some folks give him a business card, take his résumé and stop to offer advice.

"Lots of people wish me luck," he said.

Just then, a man in dark glasses and trench coat yells, "Good luck, Mike!"

"Can I give you my résumé? My phone number?" Volpe yelled to his back. The man kept walking. "Oh well. I guess people are getting to know me, at least."

Volpe said he understands what a long shot this is. But he's a mathematician. And he's done the math.

"I'm getting résumés out there. Some people will pass them along," he said. "It's better than the Internet."

As he refreshed his pile of résumés from his briefcase, a man in a canary yellow bowling shirt strode up to Volpe, hand outstretched.

"Hey, man, how you doing?" he said, pumping Volpe's arm furiously. "So, what type of job is it? How many are you hiring?"

Volpe tells him he is looking for a job.

"Oh, gotcha. I didn't read your sign right. I thought you were hiring," the man tells Volpe, unfazed by the mix-up, which happens every day.

"Lots of people out here looking for work," he said.

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