blk gradsTiffany Groene is waiting tables.

Erin Crites is making lattes and iced coffees.

And Anna Holcombe is buying and selling gold.

These three Chicago women share more than just scraping by with low-paying jobs: They all have master’s degrees and are unable to find work in their specialty areas.

There’s even a name for their situation. They are referred to as mal-employed, a term coined in the ’70s for college graduates who could not find jobs that require a degree. Instead, they settle for low-skilled jobs.

Even in rosier economic times, people with college degrees sometimes can’t find jobs in their fields. But their numbers and the trend show no sign of easing during the slow and bumpy recovery from the recession.

Nationwide, about 1.94 million graduates under age 30 were mal-employed between September and January, according to data compiled by Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

Sum said mal-employment has significantly increased in the past decade, making it the biggest challenge facing college graduates today. In 2000, Sum said, about 75 percent of college graduates held a job that required a college degree. Today that’s closer to 60 percent.

Though the economy is growing and new jobs are being created, Sum said, those graduating in June are not likely to see major improvements. About 1.7 million students are projected to graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree and 687,000 with a master’s, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“We are doing a great disservice by not admitting how bad it is for young people (to get a job),” Sum said.

And the longer college graduates go without working in their field, the harder it is to land interviews for jobs where they would use their degree.

“It’s hard to convince people that what I am doing is relevant,” said Groene, 27, who has tended bar and waitressed during the two years she’s looked for a job related to her master’s degree in public administration.

In that time, she’s had one offer in her field. It came in 2009 from Chicago Public Schools but disappeared before she could start, due to budget cuts. Desperate, she took a job as a bartender. She said she quit six months later, upset by the sexual advances of bar patrons.

With no income, she moved back to her father’s house in Rockford, Ill. At times, she found it difficult to leave her bedroom because she felt depressed.

She said she wasn’t used to not succeeding. An avid soccer player, Groene was drafted to go to college and drafted again to become an assistant coach at Columbus State University in Georgia, where she earned her master’s degree.
“You feel so down,” Groene said.

With the support of her family, she ventured out again last month and took a job as a waitress in Chicago. She said it’s the best job she’s had in two years. She also slowed down her job search and is back in school pursuing a master’s in education.

“I can’t find anything anyway,” she said, adding that more schooling allows her to start from scratch.

Experts say Groene’s situation is hardly unique. When everything else fails, graduates are more likely to go back for more education. Those with a bachelor’s sign up for a master’s, and so on. Some take a step back, either to look for new opportunities or retool their fields of interest.

Bill White, for example, is pursuing a second bachelor’s degree. He looked for a job for about six months before graduating in December with a master’s in public relations and advertising. Unable to land one, the 28-year-old has shifted his focus to mechanical engineering.

While college graduates are still more likely to land a job than those without a degree, the fact that so many are not finding a job in their fields has raised questions about the payoff of a college education.

Since he got his bachelor’s degree last May, Kirk Devezin II has worked full-time a little more than six months and has freelanced. He has never made more than the $10.36 an hour he earned as a barista at Starbucks when he was a student at Eastern Connecticut State University.

“I apply to jobs constantly, constantly, constantly,” he said.

He has interviewed for positions related to his communications degree, but lately, all the interviews have been for barista and cook jobs, and one at a carwash. Sensing that employers in low-wage industries might think he is overqualified, he has left his college degree off the applications.

“It just seems like it was just a big waste of time,” said Devezin, 24, who still lives in Connecticut. “And I’m $20,000 in debt.”

The numbers show that he’s wrong — experts say earning a college degree is still the best way to avoid unemployment.

“The value of the degree is still there; it is just not returning as much in investment as it would a few years ago,” said Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

In fact, those who land a job in their field do well, but those who are mal-employed earn just slightly more than high school graduates, according to Sum’s research. For example, the mean wage for those mal-employed is $476 a week, while those with a job that requires a degree earn $761. By comparison, a high school graduate earns $433.

Erin Crites, 27, makes $10.55 an hour as a barista at a coffee shop in downtown Chicago. She is struggling to pay her bills and has considered cutting her health insurance — a situation she was hoping to avoid by earning a master’s degree.

Crites graduated in June from Dell’Arte International, a theater school based in California. She sought a master’s degree in ensemble-based physical theater, figuring that such a specialized degree would make it easier for her to land a job. But Crites graduated as schools cut back art programs and arts-based nonprofits struggled to secure grants.

“You can get as close as you can to work solely as an artist without a source of secondary income … but it’s almost impossible,” she said.

Still, Crites is determined to make it in her field. As long as she keeps her passion, she will find a way in, she said.

Though barely getting by, Crites is lucky. Nationwide, there were about 2 million unemployed people over 25 years old with at least a bachelor’s degree — nearly 1.3 million more than in March 2007, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

On a small plaza near the DePaul University College of Law, a group of students about to graduate were socializing when a reporter approached. Most said they didn’t expect to land a law-related job. One student said he was told by a potential employer that there was no reason to hire him when the firm could hire an experienced lawyer for the same salary.

That situation is becoming more commonplace.

Anna Holcombe, who has a master’s degree in public relations and advertising, said she’s often competing for jobs against people who only have bachelor’s degrees or are willing to work for free just to get their foot in the door.

“It’s a struggle,” she said, adding that at age 31 she doesn’t have the luxury of being able to work for free. She has responsibilities, including bills due at the end of the month.

Until she gets a position in her field, Holcombe is holding on to her job as a sales associate at a retail store. She got the job to pay bills while at school, never thinking it would be so difficult to let it go.

ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

—Create a LinkedIn profile, including photo and recommendations.

—Use keywords so your profile shows up in searches. For example, John Smith, organic chemistry, research, published, quality control. Or Mary Smith, graphics, branding, logo, packaging.

—Keep a clean Facebook page, especially the profile picture and wall postings.

—Get to know prospective employers. Visit their career sites, follow them on Facebook and Twitter and view their YouTube videos.

ON YOUR RESUME:

—Emphasize transferable skills. For example, a transferable skill for a barista applying for a marketing associate job is the ability to work under pressure.

—Tailor your resume and cover letter to the job at hand. Do not use a standard version of both and blast them out to every company advertising a job opening.

—Use words or phrases from the job description in your resume and cover letter. For example, if you are applying for a marketing associate opening but you have a communications degree, emphasize the marketing classes, internships, projects, etc., that you’ve worked on and be sure to include the phrase “marketing associate.”

MORE ADVICE:

—Group contract work or volunteering into sections.

—Be selective and strategic. How would you add value?

—Don’t specify months of employment. Use years instead.

—Network, network, network.

(Mara Lee of the Hartford (Conn.) Courant contributed to this report.)

Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.