Careers & Ed: Degrees of separation

Why college grads get service jobs

Julia Cosart spends her days attending to San Francisco's skin woes — unwanted hair, unwelcome wrinkles, and clogged pores — at Spa Radiance. Her calm, self-assured, soothing demeanor is not unlike the atmosphere of the spa in which she works. Which is why it's hard to imagine her in the fast-paced, cutthroat world of advertising.

But that is where Cosart imagined herself ending up, having graduated in 2004 from the University of Nevada at Reno with a combined degree in advertising and journalism. After college, she tried her new career on for size with an advertising internship. "I realized I hated it," she says.

After working a few other jobs, including a stressful stint at a home for troubled youth, she decided to become an aesthetician by training at Miss Marty's School of Beauty in San Francisco. Now, she says, "I love what I do. I only work three days a week, but make enough to live in a beautiful San Francisco apartment. Most importantly, I don't go to a job I hate every day. There is very little stress in my life, and that's no accident."

Cosart isn't alone. According to experts like Alexandra Robbins, author of Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice from Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived (Perigee, 2004), Cosart represents a current movement among recent (and not-so-recent) college graduates who are entering jobs that have nothing to do with their degree(s), or with a traditional four-year college at all. Generation Y is not one that leaves college to head straight for the embrace of the corporation that will keep them until retirement; people now in their mid-twenties will most likely change careers several times throughout their life. They are also delaying getting married and having children, deferrals that make it less appealing or necessary to immediately seek out a career-track job.

"I know someone who went to an Ivy League school and then became a mailman," Robbins says. "People are starting to realize that college isn't a direct segue to the 'real world.'"


For many college grads following this path, the appeal is both more money and more free time. While their newly graduated classmates work 50 hours per week to earn $25,000–$45,000 per year in typical post-BA employment, grads who take jobs that don't require degrees (such as in the service industry) can earn much more.

That's why Bert Ladner slings sushi to the Gucci-clad Financial District masses instead of using his degree in finance from San Francisco State University to be an entry-level accountant. In an ironic twist, he says, "I'll definitely be waiting tables until I pay off my student loans. It would be impossible to pay those off on an entry-level salary."

It's hard to track a server's average "salary" — pay varies widely from restaurant to restaurant (and temperament to temperament) — but it's estimated that a server could make $60,000 per year in a high-end restaurant. Ladner makes as much as $50,000.

Even better, he says, the lack of a set salary provides greater control over how much you make. "Need more money? Pick up an extra shift," Ladner says.

These jobs also provide more freedom about how you spend your time. Servers, aestheticians, and massage therapists all have control over the balance between money and time — and many seem to value the latter even more than the former.

"Quality of life is the top priority for the new generation for twentysomethings," explains Robbins. "It ranks higher than salary or prestige."

Some say this proves that Generation Y, widely considered to be navel-gazing, fun-loving, and responsibility-shirking, isn't self-indulgent and lazy.

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