With fresh diplomas in hand, recent graduates have walked into a job market so barren that many of them are seeking an alternative path into the workplace.
AmeriCorps, a national service organization that provides relief to struggling communities, has received nearly triple the number of online applications as it did last year.
Tracie Howell, director of the Roger Hill Volunteer Center, 2518 Ridge Court, attributes much of that increase to students’ inability to find jobs after graduation. AmeriCorps rewards members who complete a year of service with either $1,200 cash or an educational award of $5,300, and Howell said the stipends frequently enticed college graduates seeking money to pay for graduate school or to repay student loans.
“I hate to use that fallback, but it truly is due to the economy,” Howell said of the increased numbers. “Job placement is only in the teen percentage right now.”
According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, only 19.7 percent of U.S. graduates who applied for employment were placed in jobs this year, compared with 26 percent of graduates in 2008 and 51 percent in 2007.
AmeriCorps received more than 48,000 online applications during the past five months as university students were preparing to enter the workforce — a 234 percent increase from the same five-month period last year.
“I’m just graduating college and not really sure what I want to do exactly, but I know I want to do something to give back and make a difference,” said Nicole Tichenor, a 2009 Kansas University graduate.
Tichenor graduated with a double major in philosophy and religious studies and will now begin her term of service as a volunteer with AmeriCorps. She said she had always been interested in volunteering with AmeriCorps and the educational award was an added bonus that could help with grad school.
The educational awards offered by AmeriCorps are different from regular scholarships because they can be used to repay student loans as well as to fund future tuition.
“Education is vital right now, and not everybody can pay for it on their own,” said Alexandria Norman, an AmeriCorps VISTA — Volunteers in Service to America — volunteer who works for the Department of Emergency Management in Lawrence. “To be able to pay off student loans is a great benefit that you just can’t get by doing anything else. It’s completely unique to the AmeriCorps experience.”
President Obama recently signed two pieces of legislation that would dramatically increase the number of AmeriCorps members to help communities struggling with the economic downturn.
“I think obviously the unemployment levels are skyrocketing and more people are using social services and food banks now more than ever,” Tichenor said. “So thousands, even millions, more people are in need, and we need people to help meet that need.”
AmeriCorps volunteers in Lawrence plan large community events, organize youth service projects and work with existing groups such as Trinity In-Home Care and the Douglas County Housing Authority.
Each member of AmeriCorps is paid a monthly stipend at the poverty level of the community in which he or she works. That means many members rely on food stamps and other social assistance.
“They have to go through those processes so they’re able to help others in the community do that as well,” Howell said. “They get the opportunity to understand who they’re helping. Some days I’m not sure how they do it, but they do.”
AmeriCorps isn’t the only service organization that has seen increased numbers. The Peace Corps has also seen a 16 percent increase this year in applications, and the Teach for America corps has seen a 37 percent increase since 2007.
“I think it’s really remarkable that President Obama is bringing that back, that sense of we owe this to our country and we owe this to other people, this sense of humanity,” Tichenor said. “I think it’s really important to start rebuilding the communities in America that have been deteriorating.”