Call them the underemployed generation.
Since the start of the recession, the number of new college graduates in California working as cashiers, office clerks, retail salespersons, bartenders, secretaries, child care workers, tellers and customer service representatives has jumped by 40 percent, or 12,000, according to a Bee review of census data.
Meanwhile, the number of new grads employed in their chosen professions as schoolteachers, architects, accountants and myriad other careers has fallen.
"I'm frustrated," said Sergey Savrasov, 21. Savrasov recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz with degrees in computational mathematics and business management economics. He now works for a Davis moving company.
"The response rate to applications is pretty slow," he said, "even though I'm a very qualified job candidate with two degrees."
While new college graduates still typically earn more and get hired quicker than those with only a high school diploma, they're repeatedly finding that today is one of the bleakest times in generations to finish school.
Job openings are scarce in multiple fields, hiring freezes abound, and employers often hold out for experienced workers. At the same time, new graduates are increasingly saddled with debt due to rising student fees and tuition.
Adding to the frustration, the bleak job market has left 126,000 of the state's young college graduates living with their parents, up sharply from 2007, census figures show.
To move out of their parents' house or to get out of debt, many grads are taking jobs that don't require a college education.
Abby Camacho, 26, of Fairfield graduated cum laude from San Francisco State this year with a degree in international relations. Her 3.6 grade-point average often landed her on the dean's honor list.
After six fruitless months searching for a job, she's posting résumés online, seeking work as an office administrator.
"After you graduate, family, friends and society have such expectations for your success," she said in an email. "They all think that now you have it made, that you will stand out from the crowd and find a wonderful job with ease.
"While this may have been true a decade ago, before the economic downfall, it is definitely not the case now."
Camacho has applied for jobs "from Vallejo to Placerville," she said, but hiring managers seem more interested in her previous stints as an office administrator at a plumbing business and an embroidery shop than in her degree.
"Employers don't pay attention to you without any prior experience," she said.
The well-worn path
Camacho can take cold comfort that her career path is, by now, well-trodden.
Roughly 20,000 new college graduates in California worked last year as office administrators, tellers, receptionists or secretaries, up significantly from 2007, according to The Bee's review of census data, examining all Californians 26 or younger with at least a bachelor's degree who were no longer in college.
At the same time, the ranks of new graduates working as primary or secondary schoolteachers has plummeted 20 percent since 2007, to about 16,000. The number of new grads working as electrical engineers fell 30 percent. The number of new grads working as accountants dropped 15 percent.
Savrasov, who wants a job in accounting or finance, keenly feels that last statistic.
Savrasov speaks three languages and twice made the dean's honor list. But he's still hauling furniture out of recently sold homes.
"I've been getting interviews for jobs out of my field, such as sales, management and customer service," but little interest from employers in his chosen sector, he said.
His fellow graduates "are working odd jobs like me and are still looking for jobs in their field."
If he doesn't find good work soon, Savrasov said he'll "take an under-qualified position such as accounting clerk, bookkeeper or accounting assistant and continue building my résumé."
Carrying the costs
Savrasov managed to complete his education without racking up huge debts his parents picked up most of the costs. And he's still working.
Eduardo Salinas, 31, of Sacramento is not so fortunate.
A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Salinas worked the last several years as a CAD drafter he used computer software to create blueprints for construction projects.
Salinas believed that he could do more, though, and enrolled in the construction management program at ITT Technical Institute in Rancho Cordova. He went to school full time while working full time. In June, his employer laid him off.
Salinas graduated from ITT in September. Now he's struggling to find a job in the anemic construction industry. He owes $60,000 in student loans.
He still wants something more prestigious than his old job, which does not require a four-year degree, but he's worried that he may not find it. His backup plan is to start his own business.
"I just want to get my foot in the door," he said. "But that's impossible."
The total annual cost of attending private, for-profit ITT Tech full time is about $29,000, federal data show. At Camacho's school, San Francisco State, it's $25,000. At Savrasov's school, UC Santa Cruz, it's $33,000.
Five years at those schools will cost between $125,000 and $165,000, excluding any future fee increases. By comparison, the median sales price of a single-family home in Sacramento this fall was $159,000, according to tracking firm Zillow.com.
Like Salinas, Wesley Harris, 28, recently graduated from a for-profit college, American Intercontinental University, which does most of its instruction online. The total cost of a year's study at AIU is about $25,000.
Harris, also a military veteran, moved from the East Coast to the Sacramento area to pursue a high-tech career after receiving a bachelor's in information technology earlier this year.
"It's California," Harris said. "If you are going to be in high-tech and work with startup companies, you come here."
It's not going well. Harris estimates that he's applied for about 400 jobs.
"I'm horribly frustrated," he said. "I moved cross country. I've got a lot of experience. I'm a vet. I'm all the things a company should want."
Parchment still pays
Even though exceptions abound and thousands are underemployed, new college grads are still more likely to find work than those with only a high school diploma.
The unemployment rate for college grads 26 and younger is 9 percent; for those in the same age group with just a diploma, it's 22 percent, census figures show.
UCLA sociology professor Jennie Brand said the number of college graduates flooding into retail sales, restaurant and office support jobs may be crowding out job seekers with less education.
In other words, McDonald's or Macy's, if given the choice, would often rather have a college graduate making sales than someone with no degree.
"In some fields where the college degree isn't a prerequisite for entry, it has still become valuable," she said.
The secret for many college graduates today, said Eva Gabbe, manager of recruitment programs at Sacramento State, is to "keep an open mind" and be willing to accept something less than ideal for a year or two, if only to get experience for a better job.
"You have to go build a career," said Gabbe, speaking about grads in fields where hiring is tight. "Go volunteer. Get an internship. Get something unpaid."
It's also important for graduates to avoid a defeatist attitude that they will be stuck in a subpar job for the rest of their lives, Gabbe said. "When you are 22, and someone says, 'Give it a year' and you say, 'I can't do that' Yes, you can."
The census figures analyzed by The Bee cover 2010, and Gabbe believes the job market for new graduates has improved some since then. So does Janlee Wong, director of the California Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
Social workers, like teachers, were hit hard by government budget cuts.
"We were seeing one job listing every two weeks," he said. "Now, every week, we are seeing two or three. It's taking longer and longer, but people are finding jobs."
Back in the trenches, though, optimism is in short supply.
"I honestly didn't think this would happen to me," said Camacho, the recent San Francisco State graduate. "I have always managed to find good jobs, and stable ones too, but this bad economy has really affected the job market.
"Even though I hear on the radio and on a daily basis that the unemployment rate is going down and new jobs are expected, nothing is going to be what it used to be. All I can do is keep looking until something gives in."