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ETSU seniors have mixed feelings about job prospects ahead of graduation

Tony Casey • Updated May 2, 2017 at 10:45 PM

East Tennessee State University senior Alisha Caruthers is tired of hearing older generations judge millennials’ work ethic and inability to plan for the future.

While she said she generally stays positive and has done everything she can to insure her success after graduation, she said it was older generations that set up the economic and social systems in which she and her peers live.

“We aren’t the ones to blame for this,” she said. “The job market just isn’t there the way it used to be.”

During the economic recovery over the past few years, Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 were left out of employment growth. While the U.S. economy added 2 million jobs through 2015 and 2016, the millennial age range shed 200,000 jobs, the only age demographic to lose.

Economists attribute the effect to older workers staying in the workforce longer before retiring. They point to a rise in employment among workers 55 and older as evidence of the theory.

While jobs are more scarce, millennials’ incomes don’t stretch quite as far as their parents’ did. Adjusted for inflation, a Stanford research group recently estimated that half of the children born in the 1980s grew up to earn more than their parents did, a fall from 92 percent of children born in 1940.

While studying for her bachelor’s degree, Caruthers has been working two jobs along the way — one for minimum wage as a Federal Work Study employee and one for minimum wage at The Mall at Johnson City.

When she receives her diploma on ETSU’s graduation stage this Saturday, she’ll also take on quite a bit of financial debt required to pay for her degree.

“Heck yeah,” she said when asked if she’s graduating with student loan debt, followed by a laugh and “Heck no,” when asked if she has a job lined up to pay for that debt.

Caruthers has worked as a mentor with ETSU’s QUEST college-transitioning program and has counseled students during her college career, which spans two other institutions, but without a master’s degree, she’s not going to be able to move into a job where she can help guide young students through the college process.

Year after year, U.S. students graduate with record-setting average per capita student debt, which economists predict has led to millennials waiting longer to buy homes and start families. In 2016, students faced an average of $37,712 in loans to repay.

Like many in her generation, Caruthers will move back home outside Nashville and live with her mom, perhaps returning to the career she previously held as a preschool teacher. While continuing to build her resume, Caruthers said she’ll need to tackle the hundreds of dollars needed each month to pay off her student loans.

“It’s frustrating because I’m barely making it,” she said. “But I have come to terms with the fact that I’m probably going to have this debt for the rest of my life.”

Terra Schmenger is in a different situation.

The Maryville native will not be taking any undergraduate debt with her in her pursuit of a career as a federal investigator. She’ll graduate on Saturday with a degree in international affairs.

“My parents are paying for my student loans,” Schmenger said. “I’m very blessed that way.”

Schmenger will be paying for her master’s degree, which will come from a Southeastern school she’s not locked in just yet.

Unlike Caruthers, Schmenger doesn’t have the same sympathy for the millennial generation.

“We do have advantages our parents didn’t have,” she said. “We can Google or use Wikipedia to find out anything.

“Our generation is lazy.”

Chris Barnes, an ETSU senior, recently finished up his finals and will be celebrating with a round of disc golf on Tuesday, his only day off.

Studying international finance, Barnes is looking to graduate with a four-year degree and approximately $40,000 in debt. He believes he’ll be able to pay of his debt with the money he’ll make in banking, that’s why he strategically chose the field.

Picking a pursuit that will pay off went into Barnes’ decision-making when he transferred to ETSU from the University of Tennessee.

Email Tony Casey at [email protected]. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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