The economic recession didn't hit Jennie and Dave Irwin right away, but a couple of years into the slump, the headlines finally caught up with them when Dave got his walking papers from a local box-making factory. He spent the next two years searching for a new gig until he finally replaced his lost paycheck with a job in retail — at half his previous salary.
"He took a huge pay cut to do what he's doing now," says Jennie Irwin, a stay-at-home mom who last year made the move toward re-entering the workforce, only to find herself among multitudes fighting for fewer jobs with shorter hourly schedules.
She spent six months on the job hunt and kept coming up dry. "Even at Target, they're not hiring a lot of people," she says. "And it's all part time."
This led Irwin back to J. Sargeant Reynolds, the Richmond community college where she'd received an associate's degree more than five years earlier. Irwin is now one of hundreds of students at the school, and at higher-education institutions across the state, pursuing programs tailored to a vastly changed employment environment.
In Irwin's case, she found her niche in the school's teacher-preparation program (instituted in 2006, just before the economic downturn occurred). Since then, the job market for teachers also has taken a hit, the result of cutbacks in state and local budgets. But Irwin feels confident that, thanks to J. Sarge, she's found a fairly recession-proof field.
"I really want to teach special education," she says, relating her experience as the mother of two daughters with Asperger's syndrome.
Irwin praises the school for boosting its job-placement services. She also credits a state initiative that better aligns community-college offerings with those of four-year state institutions, making a transfer to those schools a guarantee for students with good grades.
Higher education has redoubled its efforts to answer student and employer needs for real-world career training, says Jeff Kraus, assistant vice chancellor of the Virginia Community College System.
"I can tell you, from my dad's generation, once you finished school, you finished school. You were able to put in 30 years and get a gold watch and a retirement," says Kraus, marveling at challenges facing the current generation. "Now we're looking at a time when [there's] something called lifelong learning. We're at a point in time where that phrase actually has meaning. Community colleges are there to allow people to reset when their lives dictate the need to do that."
Irwin's story is similar to those of millions hit by unemployment and by broader changes in the jobs likely to be available as the market recovers. Those four-year history or creative-writing degrees, once good enough to get an entry-level job, just don't cut it in a market seeking hard skills.
Kraus recounts a story from a national conference of college and university officials he attended a couple of years ago: "They were talking about a growing trend in bachelor's [degree] holders who are using community colleges almost as a grad school — to get first the bachelor's and then return to get something that puts them on the path to a career."
At J. Sargeant Reynolds, that trend accounts for a little more than 10 percent of the student population, according to Malcolm Holmes, director of communications and public affairs at the school. Holmes doesn't necessarily see anything new in the role of community colleges: "We've always been an institution that worked hard to meet the needs of the local workforce."
But he acknowledges some programs have seen a swelling of ranks. Nursing, always a popular field, has grown.
And the school works aggressively with nursing students to place them at local medical facilities, a fact that Irwin says nearly drew her to follow the nursing path rather than education. "You have to want to succeed," she says, "but I think they've done a great job [at] job placement and getting people into programs."
Four-year institutions are shifting their approach, too, says Daphne Rankin, an associate vice provost at Virginia Commonwealth University. The university has made an effort in the past few years not only to offer programs that cater to local industry — medical arts and engineering programs that work closely with corporate partners to build better employees — but the program Rankin oversees also aims to set students on a strategic path from the start.
"We're doing something we've never done with our first-year students, by providing them at orientation with more than just a map of campus," Rankin says. Now, the orientation process puts an emphasis on creating a graduation plan rather than just a vague sense that four years from now (give or take), the student will walk a stage at the Siegel Center. "We want them to start thinking like a university student right away."
Another state effort to change student thinking is a Web-based tool called the Virginia Education Wizard (vawizard.org). The website functions as a metrics-driven online career counselor, guiding prospective students or job changers through questionnaires that help to identify areas of personal aptitude; it also shows what fields will actually have a job or two waiting when students graduate.
Wizard users are guided by Ginny, a pert, professionally dressed and perpetually chirpy avatar whose soothing voice helps in very small measure to relieve the worry of a constantly shifting job market. Kraus says his agency helped develop the tool and that it's now used in a partnership among many state agencies.
In spite of low demand in the job market for certain degree fields, there's been little change in enrollment in some majors. Psychology remains the biggest degree program at all state higher education institutions, with more than 2,000 psychology degrees awarded in 2011, according to state statistics. Other low-demand degree categories, such as English and history, still graduate thousands of students each year. In fact, state institutions produce fewer graduates in all categories of computer science — a field with rapidly expanding demand — than they do in history.
Rankin sees proof that young people remain optimistic enough about their job prospects to pursue the topics that interest them most, regardless of the application. "People want to be educated," she says, "because they see themselves having a brighter future if they have that education.