It’s almost 6 p.m. on a Friday, and the tables near the bar at the Hamilton in downtown Washington are getting crowded. That means Victoria Honard is busy.
Honard, 22, who graduated from Syracuse University in May, works about 25 hours a week as a waitress at the restaurant while she looks for a public policy job. A dean’s-list student, she moved to Washington four days after graduation with the hope of finding a position at a think tank or policy-related organization. She’s applied to about 20 prospective employers.
“The response has been minimal,” says Honard, whose academic work was in education, health, and human services. “There are two ways of looking at it. I could be extremely frustrated and be bitter, or I can make the most of it, and I’m trying to take the latter approach.”
Unemployment data appear to show big advances for women. The jobless rate in August for females 20 years and older was 6.3 percent, the lowest since December 2008, compared with 7.1 percent for men. As recently as January, the rate was 7.3 percent for both genders, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The downside is that the gains for women have been largely in low-paying jobs such as waitressing, in-home health care, food preparation, and housekeeping. About 60 percent of the increase in women’s employment from 2009 to 2012 was in jobs that pay less than $10.10 an hour, vs. 20 percent for men, according to a study by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).
The numbers expose a soft spot in the economic recovery, which has reduced the overall unemployment rate from 10 percent in October 2009. The quality of jobs is an increasing concern for U.S. policymakers and economists, because it affects income levels and wage disparities.
Of the 125,000 jobs women gained in August, 54,000 were in retail, leisure, and hospitality; only 24,000 were in professional and business services. Many of those retail and hospitality jobs are part-time, employing women 34 hours or fewer a week.
Food services and bars have added 354,000 jobs this year alone. “The place jobs have grown the most has been in these parts of the economy that women have traditionally filled more easily,” says Diane Swonk, chief economist for Mesirow Financial in Chicago.
Women have taken restaurant and retail jobs instead of teaching and other public-sector positions that have disappeared, says Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the NWLC. Females lost 444,000 public-sector jobs in the four years starting in June 2009, when the recession ended, compared with 290,000 public-sector job losses for men. Women “are taking jobs as baristas in Starbucks and other jobs that used to go to people without college degrees,” Entmacher says.
Women who worked full time in 2012 received $37,791 in median income, 77 percent of what men earned, the U.S. Census Bureau said in a report on Sept. 17. That percentage has changed little since 2007. The number of men working full time rose by 1 million from 2011 to 2012; the increase for women was 359,000.
While students and recent graduates are taking low-wage jobs to get started, about 2 million married women have dropped out of the workforce since 2008. “If they’re in a two-income house, they’re more willing to drop out and take care of the children because it costs too much for day care,” Swonk says. If the jobs available to women with children paid more, they might decide instead to go to work and use day care. Those well-paying jobs are scarce: The quality of jobs is tied directly to economic growth, she says. “Growth is a magician when it comes to employment, because it pulls people out of the woodwork who might not have worked otherwise and gives them an opportunity.” Regrettably, Swonk says, “we’re not going to have robust growth for a while.”
Education may eventually shift the ability to find good jobs in favor of women. They passed men in 2005 as the majority of college grads and have gradually increased their lead every year since, accounting for a record 52 percent of graduates in 2012.
Some female students not yet in the workforce are bracing themselves for making do with jobs outside their area of study. Alexandra Allmand, 22, says it may be difficult to find a position in human resources or recruiting when she graduates from George Washington University in December. Allmand, who studies psychology, is a hostess at District Commons, a restaurant near the university’s campus in Washington. She says she’ll look for internships in addition to jobs, “because I can’t be picky.” For many workers in their twenties “it’s catch-as-catch-can,” says Stephen Bronars, a senior economist specializing in employment and labor issues at Welch Consulting in Washington. “The economy hasn’t really picked up enough to get all of them into full-time work.”
At the Hamilton, two blocks from the White House, Syracuse grad Honard often waits on lawmakers and government officials. This summer she served a member of President Obama’s cabinet. (She recommended a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.) Honard frequently searches Syracuse’s online alumni program to scout for job openings and uses a network the university has on LinkedIn. “It’s a gradual process, and I try to be systematic about it,” she says. “I’m just lucky I have something to support myself in the meantime.”