Career advice: More degrees

There's a scene in "The Graduate" where a guy pulls overwhelmed Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) aside and offers him a bit of career advice.

"Plastics," the man says.

The movie was released in 1967, back when we still made the bulk of our plastics and so many other products in the United States, and when real beings — not the kind generated or enhanced by computers — actually starred in movies.

Fast-forward 43 years. Consider today's recession, a region mired in high double-digit unemployment and the valley's tendency to recover more slowly from these periodic financial morasses. What advice could you possibly give your favorite high school or college graduate?

The one answer, it seems, is to stay in school. Stockpile graduate degrees and try to ride this sucker out until the job market improves. At least, that seems to be the consensus among some California State University, Stanislaus, seniors found roaming the campus Wednesday, their last day of finals.

When they began their respective collegiate odysseys four or more years ago, the economy was still pretty decent. The onslaught of massive layoffs and the collapses of some major Wall Street firms remained a year or so away. Closer to home, public school districts were still gaining or at least maintaining enrollments — important because CSU, Stanislaus, turns out so many teachers.

Then the economic freefall began.

Students such as Laura Garcia of Modesto and Sonya Castellanos of Livingston, both history majors, must now rethink their futures after spending (and paying for) their years in college.

Garcia, 22, previously worked at the Stanislaus County Library in Modesto and thought about a career in library science. Now she's not sure.

"They (library workers) have gone through cuts and they're going to go through cuts again," she said.

Who knows if those positions will ever be restored, and how many of those displaced workers would still be ahead of her in line when it comes time to fill them?

So she'll stay in school to pursue her master's in history.

Likewise for Castellanos, who wants to teach history. But widespread teacher layoffs mean that experienced, albeit unemployed, teachers will be ahead of her in line for any jobs that open up. So?

"I'm still debating whether to go for a master's or a teaching credential," she said.

Ning Yang, a 25-year-old economics major, might seem better positioned than many other grads to find work immediately. After all, he was born and raised in Beijing, China — the United States' second-largest trade partner, behind Canada — and came to the United States three years ago to study.

"Because I can speak Chinese, I'd have a big advantage," he said.

Even so, he said, a bachelor's degree alone won't be enough.

"Before I came here, compared to now that I'm graduating — it's totally different that what I'd planned," he said. "I planned on finding a job right away. But just graduating from college with no experience — it's really tough. Nobody knows when (the economy is) going to come back, even though you can see it is getting better every day."

So he'll go on for his master's at Fresno State.

Staying in school, however, means paying for more schooling. Incoming freshmen will begin running their tabs by competing for spots in fewer available classes that, because of budget cuts through furloughs, will offer fewer days of instruction.

Manuel Palacios, a 26-year-old computer science major from San Jose, figures he'll finish school nearly $30,000 in debt. It could have been much, much more, he said.

"I asked a few of my friends at other universities," Palacios said. "Friends from UC Santa Barbara and UCLA will have upward of $60,000 to $70,000."

Studying now and paying later is worth it — or at least that's the philosophy of philosophy major Daniel Neisess, who plans to go on to law school.

"If you're getting loans, you can subsist and ride it out," he said. "Stay in school. Don't stop. Certainly, more education brings more opportunities. People are saying the bachelor's degree is now (equivalent to) a high school diploma."

Which brings us back to "The Graduate" and advice.

Plastics? Outdated and pretty much outsourced overseas.

Try preparation, patience and perseverance, followed by years of payback.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.