The New Okies: Brain Drain in Class of '09
For the fourth annual Nation Student Writing Contest, we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how the recession had affected them. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and eight finalists total. The winners are Jim Miller of Henderson State University in Arkansas and Deborah Ghim of Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois. You can read the essays at TheNation.com/student. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $250 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. This contest was made possible by the BIL Charitable Trust to recognize and reward the best in student writing and thinking. --The Editors
If you took only a quick look, you wouldn't guess James is a week from going abroad. He speaks slowly, with a thick Southern accent, and the furthest he's ever been from his South Georgia home is a short trip to Minnesota. But James isn't on a gap-year trip to Europe. He's a member of the class of 2009, graduating in the middle of the deepest recession anyone from my generation has ever known. Faced with a country that has no jobs for its rapidly expanding cohort of new college graduates, James (one of my closest friends) has given up on the United States and is moving on to wherever he can find work--any work.
James is awaiting final approval on his visa to Korea. The hagwon, a special school for learning English, has hired him for about $1,000 a month plus living expenses. He explains that it's the best he can do: even the Korean English-teaching market, which used to hire any college graduate with a pulse for $2,000 a month or better, is now saturated with grads hoping for an economy-class transpacific ticket and a fresh start.
These graduates aren't your typical unemployed college grads. Sure, there are philosophy and English majors who'd been told for years they'd have a tough time in the real world, but James has a degree in biology. On paper, he's the kind of student we need more of: motivated, quick to learn, with a fantastic work ethic. In practice, he can't even get an interview. "I've applied everywhere," he says, from temp agencies to research labs. "Everyone says you need experience."
The experience catch-22 isn't new to college grads, but all the usual avenues of getting entry-level experience are tapping out. Internships (if the class of '09 can find them) are usually unpaid, which is great for students with rich parents, but leaves the rest of us in the lurch.
Instead of sticking around in an increasingly depressing world of empty inboxes and silent telephones, job-seekers like James are heading to China, Korea and Japan. Like the Okies of the 1930s, they are packing up what they can in hopes of finding a better life in a different part of the world.
Like the Okies, the conditions that await these eager workers in far-off lands are far from ideal. Already, James has had to look through blacklists of exploitive hagwon that abuse and mistreat employees, some of which are reputed to steal employee passports or use sham visas to get workers into the country. Others are known to force employees to work unpaid overtime or violate contract provisions, and forums of English teachers abroad are full of stories of being left stranded in a foreign country without enough money to buy a plane ticket home.
This recession is bad for James, but when people like James are leaving, it's even worse for the country. With each new grad that leaves the US in this recession, we lose another chance at a new technology or innovation. Even at a time when the nation has to tighten its belt, we cannot afford to lose our best and brightest in their young and innovative years, sending them away to work for wages that exploit their eagerness and lack of experience. To do so is to invite calamity not this year or next but twenty years from now, when we have lost our status as a world leader in science and technology.
Last night, my sister--four-and-a-half years younger than me, and just starting in college--told me that she's considering moving to Japan after she's done with her triple major in business, art history and Japanese. "They'll give me $20,000 a year," she said, "and even though it won't go very far, it's a guaranteed job." I wish her well, but I hope that when she comes back, she doesn't find that the same jobs that required "experience" a year or two before are now hiring bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngsters for unlivable wages.
As for me, with more than half my friends either overseas or considering a move, I am sticking around to watch the brain drain for at least a while more. When I graduate, I'll be trying my hardest to find a job right here, helping my local and national economy. But if I can't, well--we'll always have Shanghai.