Higher hospitality 

The economy brings more college grads to the service industry

Wearing a black V-neck and sterling silver earrings, Sarah Whistine sits near the pool tables at Georgia State hangout Sidebar, talking on her cell phone between shifts. She's been working here for almost a year now, and at first glance seems like any other student working her way through college at a sports bar. But Whistine is not a college student. She has a degree as a physical therapist assistant from Black Hawk College in Illinois, and turned 30 last month.

The national percentage of jobless bachelor’s degree holders has doubled from 2.4 percent to 4.7 percent over the past year, according to educational attainment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But because Atlanta holds more opportunity than some other areas in the state, laid-off locals from this educational group often take service industry jobs while they continue to hope for a position in their field, said Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Steve Rondone, who works in Atlanta.

Restaurants in the city are feeling the effects. Many eateries in Atlanta said they've seen a jump in applicants with degrees or job training in recent months. For people like Whistine, still holding out for job openings, working at a bar or restaurant is a natural choice in the down time.

“I’ve seen a lot of bachelor’s degrees apply. It’s almost like the standard right now,” says Six Feet Under general manager Leah Gossmann. “Everyone that walks in the door is sharp. Looks great. Dressed for the interview. It just sucks. You want to give them all a job, but you can't.”

Though people with bachelor’s degrees have a much lower unemployment rate when compared to those with a high school diploma, Rondone says, “Usually when people like engineers or teachers get laid off or fired, they’re looking for jobs, and a lot of the jobs are in service types of fields. These people have bills, rent, car payments, gas – how else would you get that money?”

Nick Raishel, kitchen manager at Charlie Mopps Public House in Sandy Springs, said the restaurant has seen a 20 percent increase in applications in the past few months. “More have a bachelor’s degree. Before the recession, it was people who had just been servers all their lives,” he said.

Restaurant managers in Atlanta said they are not necessarily wowed by a master’s degree on a resume, but are sometimes willing to train this new influx of applicants, many of whom have no service experience.

“We’ll give anyone a chance,” said the Grape at Phipps Plaza's general manager, Bari Selizer. “But, as a store we require extensive experience. We get a ton of people 100 percent not qualified.”

“If someone has a bachelor’s degree, that looks great because you know that they are a go-getter," said Gossmann. "But that’s not necessarily the end-all-be-all for me. With me it’s much more the vibe I get from them."

Six Feet Under server Laura Trkovsky has a master’s degree in math education from the University of Georgia. Since she finished graduate school in 2006, she's taught high school in Fayette County, teaching classes such as A.P. statistics and calculus. But she's been serving full time since she was laid off as part of budget cuts earlier this year. Trkovsky currently makes $2.13 per hour plus tips, instead of the approximately $40,000 per year she expected to earn with her degree. She said she isn’t sure if her $60,000 education was worth it.

Some, like Laura Nolan, are turning to service because it’s what they love.

Four years ago, Nolan, who has a degree in industrial management from Georgia Tech, quit her job working in medical staffing to look for something more fulfilling. She ended up bartending at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club in Little Five Points, and said she's never looked back. “I have loved every minute of it,” she said of daytime bartending at the Yacht Club. “It’s really just a nice neighborhood feeling.”

Rondone says this trend in service employment won’t last forever. “Companies will be leaner and more efficient when the economy comes on the upswing, and they’ll start hiring again,” he said.

But for now, servers who can solve trig functions or bartenders who can design buildings are a little more likely in Atlanta.

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