The competition is getting fierce here in New Orleans.
No, I do not mean the Pelicans retooling their roster or the Saints gearing up for another shot at a Super Bowl championship.
Since Hurricane Katrina, this city has been inundated by 20-somethings looking to make a difference. When the floodwaters receded, the young people poured in from all corners of the country, starting non-profits, trendy businesses, community-development groups, teaching — you name it.
To attract its share of the stampede, Tulane University also made drastic changes after the storm, eliminating application fees for high school students, developing an enormous pool of scholarship money to lure students back to the city, and adding a unique service-learning component to the curriculum.
After a difficult freshman year at Boston University, I began my search to transfer, and Tulane kept coming to mind — mine and a whole lot of my contemporaries. No longer a stagnant backwater (if it ever truly was), post-Katrina New Orleans offered a chance to be a part of something bigger, the chance to be in on the ground floor as the city climbs back from the depths of disaster. New Orleans is the new Seattle. The new San Francisco. It’s the place to be!
Which is why, after graduating from Tulane, I decided to stay. That meant finding a job. Shouldn’t be a problem for a committed young idealist like me, I told myself. Hell, I’d work for practically nothing. Put a roof over my head and gruel on the table and I was ready to serve.
The career fairs confirmed that gruel might be exactly what was in store. I learned all about AmeriCorps and its myriad opportunities to work in housing rehabilitation, local schools and environmental advocacy. AmeriCorps are paid so little, they call it a stipend, rather than a salary: $12,500 for 11 months work. Not to worry about gruel: on that pay scale, you qualify for food stamps. The idea behind the stipend is that you are supposed to basically live like the people you are serving in the community. I liked this idea, even though it worried me a little. It would be a good lesson in financial responsibility, I thought. Plus, I figured, this meager compensation would weed out other candidates who did not have the ability or desire to live like Medieval mendicants.
With every Tulane senior and his mother panicking about post-college life, I figured that I had a pretty good resume for one of these AmeriCorps positions. I had worked in New Orleans public schools and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. I won a public-service award at the end of my senior year. Who could be more qualified, I thought confidently as I clicked to submit my application.
I got an interview with the St. Bernard Project, a disaster relief organization. Things were starting to cook. A couple of months later I got an email: “Thank you for taking the time to interview with our team …” Uh-oh, I thought. This was an inauspicious salutation. I couldn’t believe it. I had deluded myself into thinking I was all but assured a position. I pictured my new schedule, work environment and even future grocery bills. Not to worry, I thought, there are plenty more organizations just as interesting as this one.
The next day I applied to Habitat for Humanity, Project Homecoming, and Tulane Vista, which offered work similar to the St. Bernard Project. I figured as long as I kept casting my net, I had to land something.
Another series of interviews went by and another series of emails flooded my inbox. “We have appreciated getting the opportunity to learn more about your skills,” an email started. “We have been lucky to receive a high volume of extremely qualified applicants, and unfortunately, we will not be able to invite you to join our AmeriCorps Program at this time.”
After the latest round of rejections, I began to take a more sober look at the work environment in New Orleans. I talked to my friends who had applied to similar AmeriCorps programs, and they too were surprised at the popularity of these low-paying jobs. College grads, students with high GPAs, vols with strong community service experience, creative thinkers. None was guaranteed a job.
We do-gooders are a glut on the market. The number of available positions appears to be in inverse proportion to our zeal to do good. Of course the slow pace of recovery from the crash and Great Recession hasn’t helped. And the subsequent sequester of federal funding has put the squeeze on just such government-sponsored programs as AmeriCorps.
I’m one of the lucky ones, though. My parents—God bless them—have agreed to keep me on the family payroll for the time being until I figure things out. I don’t have to sell drugs (at least not yet). I don’t have to turn tricks on Bourbon Street for change. For now I’m just a hard-luck Trustafarian trying to get his first real job.
But wait a minute. Hasn’t the competition heard the news: sky-high murder rate, a rapidly eroding coastline, treacherous hurricanes, rising rents.
Beat it, all you Johnny-come-latelys. Don’t you want to go somewhere safer, somewhere with a better job market? I’ve been here for years (four, to be precise). I’ve paid my dues.
Now, if I could just figure out a way to get paid.
Sam Tabachnik hopes to write for a living but, meanwhile, is still looking for a day job.