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State News

February 25, 2013

Economic reality hits teaching hopeful

DECATUR, Ala. — Amanda Wheless was supposed to be teaching fourth-graders fractions, not whipping up mocha lattes and frappuccinos at Starbucks four years after college graduation.

The world didn't seem to care that the 28-year-old had a bachelor's degree in elementary education, a passion for helping children and a resume that included mission work for impoverished immigrants.

The Greenwood, S.C., native decided at age 8 that she was going to be a school teacher, and she followed all of society's directions to become one: stay in school, make good grades, earn a college degree and apply for jobs.

But the housing market bubble burst in 2007, followed by the Wall Street financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession of 2009. In the years since, Wheless, a Decatur resident, and many others have been forced to re-evaluate what they're willing to do, and do without, to make ends meet.

Wheless, who works for Enterprise car rental in Decatur, witnessed a national teacher shortage turn into teacher layoffs as education budgets shrank and government revenue plummeted.

"My professors told me that I would always have a job because we're always going to need teachers," Wheless said.

But proration and spending cuts mandated by Gov. Robert Bentley left fewer teaching positions, said Debra Baird, dean of the education department at Athens State University, which is known for educating future teachers.

"The jobs are just not as plentiful as they once were, but we're always going to need teachers," Baird said.

Candidates that pair their education degree with special education and foreign language certification seem to fare better, and there's a higher demand for math and science teachers because of a smaller pool of job seekers, Decatur City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols said.

"My degree turned out to be just a piece of paper, not the guarantee of job security I thought it would be," said Wheless, a slight young woman who is quick to smile and laugh. "I think the biggest shock to my generation is that we've been handed everything in our lives. We just assumed our dream job would be handed to us, too."

The National Association of Colleges and Employer's annual Job Outlook Survey found colleges should encourage students to consider finance, computer and information science, accounting, engineering and economics degrees because of employer demand.

Mechanical engineering graduates hired as petroleum, mining and geographical engineers receive starting salaries that average $77,500 annually, while construction science and management majors can find work that averages $56,600.

Other high-paying jobs are financial managers ($75,700), software developers ($73,400) and physician's assistants ($71,700), according to the NACE study.

After graduating from Landers University in her hometown in 2006, Wheless decided to do Christian missionary work in addition to holding down a job at Starbucks. The missions took her from Pennsylvania to Texas before she moved to Decatur in 2009. While working full time at the Beltline Road Starbucks, tutoring students with dyslexia and teaching yoga, Wheless applied for every teaching job she could find without success.

"I just felt like I was clicking buttons. It was very frustrating and disappointing," she said. "I applied for every teaching job in the state, and not one got back with me."

The 20-something barista's low point — cleaning out a clogged drain at Starbucks full of stinking, soured milk — was her road to Damascus conversion.

"It was horrible. It was humbling," Wheless said. "This was not how my life was supposed to be, but in that same moment, I thought, 'You know, who am I to think I am too good to do this? Yeah, it's not fun. But you know what? It's paying my bills.' "

Jobs that once were considered unbecoming, in the face of mounting debt and unemployment, are now deemed blessings, she said. Wheless recalls a 40-year-old co-worker who took a job at Starbucks after he lost his high-paying position with the federal government.

"He had been applying for every job out there, and they were the first one to call in six months," Wheless said. "My situation was stressful enough. I could not imagine starting over at middle age."

Labor data shows the recession wiped out 3.76 million mid-wage jobs with salaries ranging from $38,000 to $68,00 annually. That represented 50 percent of all jobs lost, but only 2 percent of the 3.52 million jobs added in the past 3 1/2 years since the recession ended have been mid-pay positions. Nearly 70 percent of the jobs that have come back are in low-paying industries.

"It's been tough because a lot of people, particularly my age, had gotten comfortable and had expectations," Wheless said. "Sometimes, I think you've just got to start at the bottom and work your way up. That's what our parents did. Why should we be any different?"

Two years ago, Wheless decided to take a job offer at Enterprise rental car company, starting as a manager in training. It allowed her to focus on one job instead of splitting her time between three, she said. She has been climbing the management ladder and picking up business acumen since. She's now an assistant manager, at the Sixth Avenue Southeast location in Decatur. Wheless still wants to work with children at some point in the future, but at the moment, she hopes her ascent within the company continues.

"I never thought I would be serving coffee or selling cars, but you know what, I'm happy the direction my life is headed right now," she said.

Her advice to others seeking work?

"Don't sit at home waiting for what you think is your dream job or the one in your degree field. You've just got to get out there, take an opportunity and see where it takes you," she said.

 

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