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What it’s like for a college grad to find a job in today’s new economy

Comcast executives and local and state government officials celebrated the opening of a new Comcast call center in Minnetonka.
Courtesy of Comcast Corp.
Comcast executives and local and state government officials celebrated the opening Wednesday of a new Comcast call center in Minnetonka.

After Marlana Wenzel graduated with a degree in history and political science from Vanguard University in southern California in 2006, she returned to Minnesota figuring she’d work in a corporate job for a few years “to make some money” before starting on her desired career in teaching.
 
It hasn’t worked out the way she’d planned it.

Her first layoff came in 2008 “when everything started” as the economy slid into the Great Recession, she recalled recently.

Since graduating, she’s held several full- and part-time jobs in sales and customer service, the longest a part-time job at T-Mobile that lasted a year and a half.
 
Four months into her third layoff this spring, Wenzel was finding it harder than ever to land a new job. Wenzel, 26, of Mound estimates she had applied for 50 different positions at more than a dozen companies around the Twin Cities.

Potential employers liked her experience and enthusiasm, she said, but weren’t ready to hire. “They were just collecting information,” she said. “I couldn’t even get a call back.”

When Wenzel heard this spring that Comcast would be adding 450 jobs at a new regional call center opening in Minnetonka, she met with a recruiter at a job fair in Bloomington and put in her application.

Call center supervisor Clark Westby (right) offers advice to new customer account rep Jeremy Fry.
MinnPost photo by Brad Allen
Call center supervisor Clark Westby (right) offers advice to new customer account rep Jeremy Fry.

This time the response was different. “They called me back,” she said. “The recruiter followed up.” And she was hired.
 
Excited and nervous
As she finishes a six-week in-house training program to become a “customer loyalty account representative,” Wenzel is excited. “I’m ready… and a little nervous,” she said.

Wenzel said she can see more of a future with the telecommunications giant than her previous jobs, in part because of the training investment they’ve made in her. In previous jobs she had little or no training before beginning work. “They just threw me to the sharks.”

Wenzel considers herself fortunate. She was never able to collect unemployment, but was never out of a job longer than four months at a stretch. Her husband has maintained his job at T-Mobile throughout the past several years, so they’ve been able to get by, she explained. But this last stretch of unemployment was the most trying, she said.

I met Wenzel following a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday celebrating Comcast’s opening of its 98,000-square-foot call center. She stepped out of a class of a couple of dozen trainees to talk to me. When I asked her fellow trainees how many had been unemployed immediately prior to starting at Comcast, about one third raised their hands.

Comcast Corp. (NASDAQ: CMCSA) ,the Philadelphia-based cable and telecom giant, employs about 2,000 people in Minnesota. The company has filled about 100 of the new positions in Minnetonka and expects to have all the positions filled by mid-2012, according to a spokesperson.

Minnesota site selected
Comcast invested “several million dollars” into the Minnetonka site, which it already owned, to transform it from sales and administrative offices to a regional call center, according to Cathy Kilstrom, Comcast West Division senior vice president of customer care. Minnesota won out as a location for the call center over sites in Washington, Oregon and Colorado in part because of the state’s reputation for having an educated workforce and strong work ethic, she said.
 
The call center employees are part of a new customer loyalty effort Comcast is pioneering here, company officials explained. The call center employees are being trained to handle customers who are “in a change mode” as they come to the end of a subscription period or look to change the level of services they buy from Comcast, according to call center director Clyde Swain.
 
All the jobs are full time and start at $13 an hour with up to 30 percent sales commission on top of that, Swain said. The center will run from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week and is expected to handle an estimated 300,000 inbound calls annually from the company’s 11-state western division.

Corporate officials were joined by state and local officeholders and chambers of commerce leaders to ceremonially re-open the new facility, proudly showing off the refurbished office building. Attendees  included U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, state Senator Terri Bonoff, and Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider as well as several state and regional chambers of commerce execs.

Elected officials usually show up at such occasions to tout their role in bringing federal or state aid or pointing to a particular program that helped create the new jobs, but Comcast did this all without state or federal money.

When asked why they all turned out for the ceremony, company representatives and elected officials alike all gave the same answer. “It’s about the jobs,” was the common refrain.

“We’ll throw a parade for any company that provides 20 jobs,” said Dave Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. For an development like this, the big turnout seemed appropriate, he said.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/25/2011 - 11:05 am.

    Good. Jobs. But not necessarily good jobs. It’s a start, but I’d like to see more investment into higher quality jobs. I worked in a call center during college–it’s certainly not a career, and it’s not something with a whole lot of upward mobility. That being said, I repeat. Good. Jobs.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/25/2011 - 11:34 am.

    Sad and scary.

    There are few, if any, that begin their college education or begin their post-college work life with the dream of being a call-center worker.

    To what advantage is a college education for a call center worker? Hopefully their income is sufficient to pay off the college debt.

    Studies show that people who enter the workforce in difficult times will quite likely remain at a lower income level for the remainder of their work life.

    Commission sales are, for the majority of workers, a losing proposition–otherwise everyone would be in sales, making the big commission.

    The formerly vibrant US economy was not built on these types of jobs and these pay scales.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/25/2011 - 01:13 pm.

    Good point, Neal. I had a conversation yesterday with co-workers about the value of a college education these days. It was my opinion that while higher education should be more available, it should be less utilized. This story and this particular job are perfect examples of reasons why. The cost of getting an education is increasing almost exponentially, in part due to demand and in part due to reduced public support. Upon finishing a four-year degree, a new graduate is typically saddled with a huge amount of debt. And because so many people get 4-year degrees, even employers offering the lowliest jobs feel entitled to people with degrees, even if the job wastes it. So, people with degrees are competing for fewer and fewer jobs with a pressure to push wages lower.

    Now, there’s an argument that the benefit to employers is that they get someone that can “finish something.” But, in my experience, there is a huge range of quality amongst those getting 4-year degrees, and the degree itself in some cases means nothing but that they took out a loan and managed to do ok at the classes they took.

    But, what’s the benefit to the newly graduated? Could they have done the job they end up in without 4 years of debt? How about trade school or community college? Would that have served them just as well, maybe even better? Would not having a 4-year degree have hindered advancement when compared to the same job with a 4-year degree?

    The bottom line is that the market stinks and while it’s a good time to go to school, it’s not a good time to have the debt. Nor can it be in the best long-term interest for businesses that are pushing down salaries while pushing up education requirements, as it reduced loyalty to the companies and increases employee mobility, unless they can provide a clear ladder upward.

  4. Submitted by Fima Estrin on 08/25/2011 - 03:10 pm.

    In 2001 I worked as an engineer and my salary was 39K.
    10 years later they are offering $13 PER HOUR TO SOMEBODY WITH 4 years degree.
    I do not like such kind of articles.
    Requirements for phone representatives should be high school diploma
    $13 per hour is nor enough to pay college debt. Just tell the truth, please.
    These job openings good for teens

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/25/2011 - 06:25 pm.

    Fima, I assure you that Comcast’s call center jobs do not require a four-year degree. With jobs so scarce and so many people graduating every year with worthless degrees (history and political science?) they end up getting a lot of applicants who happen to be college graduates.

    If people are going to make the decision to pursue a traditional four-year degree, they should do a cost-benefit analysis and determine how much their anticipated career will pay on an annual basis and whether it’s even enough to pay back their loans.

  6. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 08/26/2011 - 07:41 am.

    Dennis – I couldn’t agree more, but you will probably be called a troll for expressing an outside the Minnpost box opinion. On this board you should almost provide a wiki definition for cost benefit analysis.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/26/2011 - 07:59 am.

    Is it just me or is this just a promo for Comcast?

  8. Submitted by Nathan Roisen on 08/26/2011 - 08:59 am.

    #5 & #6 –

    Would the story be different for you if it featured an engineering or biology grad? The broader themes are still relevant, even for majors you might deem more useful.

    College graduates of all types are having a lot of difficulty finding jobs, while the ones they do find often pay too little to cover the debt taken out to get the education.

  9. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/26/2011 - 01:32 pm.

    Nathan @#8, you hit the nail on the head. It’s not just people with “worthless” degrees. It’s everyone. In fact, in 2006 when I graduated with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, I had a really hard time finding a position. The offers I did get included a lab tech job for about $30k. Really?!

    I was very fortunate, at the time (and would probably be more so, now) that I ended up with the position I’m in. Getting that degree shouldn’t have required a cost-benefit analysis (and I take exception to the suggestion that a person that leans liberal lacks the mental capacity to understand what that is without a wikipedia reference–seriously MinnPost, with some of the posts that I’ve written that were never posted, presumably for being personal attacks, I’m surprised that Mr. Skar and others are allowed to make such allusions). In fact, it should have been a no-brainer.

    But the market has changed. So, Mr. Tester is not entirely wrong. Quite frankly, we’re not far away from an entirely undereducated generation. The good news is that a degree will be valuable again. The bad news is that degrees will be pretty much limited to the aristocracy, again. Hopefully, businesses will learn that they are no more entitled to a well-educated worker than any potential worker is entitled to work.

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