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NOLA employment hitches for recent post-grads

The competition is getting fierce down here in New Orleans.

No, I'm not referring to the Pelicans retooling their roster or the Saints gearing up for another shot at a Super Bowl championship.

Since Hurricane Katrina, this city has become inundated by 20-somethings looking to make a difference. When the floodwaters receded, young people poured in from all corners of the country, starting non-governmental organizations, non-profits and other community development groups.

Tulane University also made drastic changes after the storm, eliminating application fees for high school applicants, developing an enormous pool of scholarship money to lure students back to the city, and adding a unique service-learning component to its curriculum.

After a difficult freshman year at Boston University, I searched for a university to transfer to, and Tulane kept reappearing in my mind’s eye. The city of New Orleans is a draw, now, for people like me: those trying to work in the city, with the community and in the classroom. It’s a chance to be a part of something bigger, the chance to be on the ground floor as the city continues climbing back from the depths of disaster. New Orleans is now a hip place to relocate.

That’s why, after three years at Tulane, I decided to stay after graduation and find a job.

At the career fairs, I learned all about Americorps and its bounty of opportunities to work in housing rehabilitation, local schools and environmental advocacy. Americorps workers receive a tiny salary, a stipend, actually. At $12,500 for 11 months, I would even qualify for food stamps; the idea is that you’re supposed to live like the people you are serving in the community. I liked this idea, even though it worried me. It would be a good lesson in fiscal responsibility, I thought. Plus, I figured, this meager compensation would weed out other candidates who didn’t have the ability or desire to live like this.

When every Tulane senior and their mothers were panicking about post-college life, I figured that I had options and a pretty good resume for these Americorps positions. I had worked in New Orleans public schools, volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and even won a public service award at the end of my senior year. Who could be more qualified than me, I confidently thought, as I clicked to submit my application.

But a couple months after interviewing with the St. Bernard Project, a disaster relief organization, I received an email:

“Thank you for taking the time to interview with our team…” the message began.

Uh-oh. This is not going as planned. I couldn’t believe it; I’d deluded myself into thinking that I was all but assured the position. I pictured my new schedule, work environment and even future grocery bills.

Not to worry, I thought, there are plenty more organizations just like this one. 

The next day I applied to Habitat for Humanity, Project Homecoming, and Tulane Vista, all of which offered similar positions to the St. Bernard Project. I figured as long as I kept casting my net out, I had to land something. Right?

Another series of interviews went by, and another series of emails flooded my inbox:

“We have appreciated getting the opportunity to learn more about your skills. We have [also] been lucky to receive a high volume of extremely qualified applicants, and unfortunately, we will not be able to invite you to join our program at this time.”

After the latest round of rejections, I began to take a more sober look at the work environment in New Orleans. I talked to my friends who had applied to similar programs, and they, too, were surprised by the popularity of these low-paying jobs. Rejections were sent to college graduates, many with high GPAs and strong backgrounds in community service.

The job market has been saturated by those who want to do good, but the number of applicants far exceeds the number of open positions. To make matters worse, the stagnant economy and subsequent sequester have resulted in funding cuts for many of government-sponsored programs, like Americorps. It’s never been so hard to get long hours and meager wages in a city with the highest crime rate in the United States, a rapidly eroding coastline, and a staggering unemployment stats.

So my search continues with the knowledge that I’m not alone out here. Far from it.

This article is by Sam Tabachnik. Please send comments to [email protected]