TOPICS > Economy

Generation Next: Young Grads Turn to Service Amid Tight Job Market

June 22, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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At community resource centers across the country, young people like Brian Marroquin, a recent graduate of VCU, are deferring their careers to focus on community service. Judy Woodruff examines the trend as part of the Generation Next series.
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JIM LEHRER: Now the third of our reports on Generation Next. Judy Woodruff is examining how young people are coping with the recession. Tonight, she focuses on a young man navigating a dream to help others.

BRIAN MARROQUIN: What are you working on today?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Normally it’s the younger person who takes advice from the older, but that concept is turned on its head at this community resource center in Richmond, Va., and nine others like it around the country.

BRIAN MARROQUIN: You want to put McDonald’s first or you want to keep Salvation Army at the top?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty-two-year-old Brian Marroquin, in the weeks before he graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, was helping 45-year-old Toney Fortune spruce up his resume, the first step to finding a job in this down economy. Ironically, Marroquin himself had to sort out his own job situation just a matter of months ago.

BRIAN MARROQUIN: Since I was going to put off grad school, my plan was to just find something in the meantime, I guess, that I would enjoy that would be related to political science, my major.

And I counted on some government job being there. You know, I assumed that they were doing a little bit better than some private-sector jobs. I was a little disappointed, because there was a hiring freeze, across-the-board hiring freeze.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, this was a surprise.

BRIAN MARROQUIN: It was a surprise, and I think I kind of had to readjust pretty quickly right around the winter break, right before I got back to spring semester, and think about what I was going to do after graduation.

Public sector jobs are scarce

JUDY WOODRUFF: Having emigrated with his family to the United States from Guatemala at the age of 3, Marroquin is the first in his family to graduate from college. He's worked hard to excel academically and aimed for a career in government and law.

He worked as a legislative aide in the Virginia State Senate and recently was honored with three academic awards, captured here in home video. But when the time came to look for a full-time job after graduation, the recession was already taking its toll. Marroquin's former urban finance Professor David Canada.

DAVID CANADA, Virginia Commonwealth University: I think it's very difficult to find jobs in the public sector these days, just as it is in the private sector. Virtually every local government in this region either has frozen positions or actually has reduced positions as a result of just declining revenues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adding to the pressure on Marroquin was his desire to help his parents. His mother cleans homes for a living; his father works as a clerk for the federal government. With tight times, the couple is living temporarily at the home of one of Brian's older sisters. They've pinned great hopes on Brian's future, in part because their own was limited.

JOSE MARROQUIN: I think all parents wants his son or daughter or wherever to try to get a better life that we have. And he has his own dream.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So Marroquin had to break the news that, instead of a government job, which would pay from $30,000 to $40,000 a year, he'd defer that dream for a while. Instead, he'll learn a poverty-level salary as a full-time site coordinator at the Washington, D.C., office of the nonprofit National Student Partnerships, soon to be renamed LIFT.

JOSE MARROQUIN: We hope he got the job in the government, but the program actually is very hard to find them. But if -- God bless him. We are very happy, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think of the characteristics of your generation when it comes to doing the kind of thing you're doing?

BRIAN MARROQUIN: You know, it can be a good thing and a bad thing that we're -- and sometimes we're impatient. We want to get things done quickly, you know? But in this sense, it may be a good thing. We want to see results quickly.

Building job skills through service

JUDY WOODRUFF: National Student Partnerships, or NSP, relies on students from area colleges who work one-on-one with low-income community members. It's funded 20 percent from AmeriCorps, the U.S. government's service program, and 80 percent from private sources, large and small.

KIRSTEN LODAL, CEO, National Student Partnerships: This generation of college students and young people are deeply committed to serving. It's kind of hard-coded into their DNA.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty-nine-year-old Kirsten Lodal, who founded National Student Partnerships just 10 years ago, says doing richly fulfilling work right out of college is becoming more and more common for Marroquin's generation, especially now.

KIRSTEN LODAL: Our responsibility is to say, "How can we offer other kinds of compensation besides money, professional development opportunities, access to mentors, access to other kinds of career paths, after a national service engagement?"

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lodal explains that the benefits of doing community service for Marroquin and others extend well beyond the gratification of helping those less fortunate.

KIRSTEN LODAL: He in his early 20s will have the chance to fundraise, to manage a community board, to learn invaluable marketing lessons by having to recruit volunteers, recruit community members. He's going to have to learn how to network in the community, how to work with the public sector, how to, you know, manage a budget. So this is a major management experience on top of a service experience.

BRIAN MARROQUIN: If a job, you know, replies to your application online, they're going to send it, and it's going to appear right there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In addition to helping clients find job openings, Marroquin and others scope out education possibilities and secure affordable housing. They also provide an emotional lift in many cases.

BRIAN MARROQUIN: The first thing that I talk to them about is, you know, what they want to work in and tell them that, well, why don't we start a resume? And they may never have had a resume. But the thing is, this person may be very, you know, qualified, may have had a lot of different job experiences.

When they see that we're working towards that and they see their name on a piece of paper saying how great they are, you know, in a resume, I think that that's really satisfying.

Generation 'highly entrepreneurial'

JUDY WOODRUFF: Toney Fortune now thinks he has something to offer. He's been going to this NSP office for the past eight months.

TONEY FORTUNE: I need a job. I need a job. And I say, you know, it's been kind of hard, because I was a felon, which I had been in no trouble for seven years.

It was a confidence-builder, because, like I say, everything that I could imagine that I shot out, they had an answer for. We had a solution. We brainstormed things, and we just accomplished so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Over the past few months, there have been three times the number of applicants for the post-college volunteer positions. In fact, Lodal says, in trying to fill 16 slots for one of the programs, they had to turn away 500 applicants.

Lodal, who founded NSP when she was a sophomore at Yale, says President Obama's signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which boosts national and community service, is a real boon to this generation.

KIRSTEN LODAL: This generation is highly entrepreneurial. They have high expectations for how it is that they're going to move mountains in the communities that they're serving. They're not interested in cheap, gray service or anything that might have that kind of trapping. They want to change the world.

BRIAN MARROQUIN: Growing up, my parents and even my extended family have always been really willing to help each other. And that's kind of given me some, again, inspiration to try and make an impact in other people's lives. And since I'm graduating, I think, you know, I want to come back and fill that in what they've done their whole lives, which is help each other out, pool our resources, and just get out of the situation together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now, Marroquin and his parents are looking for a two-bedroom apartment in Northern Virginia. He comes with $20,000 of debt from college, but, as an AmeriCorps volunteer with NSP, he will get health care coverage and be able to defer payment of some of his loans. At the end of his service, he'll receive additional money for education.

At a recent get-together in Richmond, Marroquin and his fellow volunteers celebrated their year of service. And now, with his family documenting it, Marroquin prepares to transition from a star student to the front lines of the civic generation.

JIM LEHRER: Judy's reports are a partnership with National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." The final pieces in the series will air next Monday on NPR, as well as here on the NewsHour.