As my college students are preparing for the real world, they are always asking about my first post-college job experience. They pay attention when I tell them that I not only started with a great job, but I did so during a recession.
I was a communication major, starting my senior year. I had experience working for the El Paso Herald-Post as a stringer for sports games, and as a campus reporter for the student newspaper. But breaking into the world of journalism wasn’t going to be easy. Professors warned me about the dwindling market for television and radio. And half the major newspapers in Texas closed during that early 1990s recession.
But one of professors told me that the future of communications was in public relations and advertising. It wasn’t going to be like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Watergate movie “All the Presidents Men,” but it would pay the bills.
One of my college buddies was working for USAA, an insurance company that serves military officers and dependents, in their IT department. He saw an advertisement for an intern in their public relations department and called me. Luckily, I had listened to my mom and had a resume and portfolio ready, even though graduation was several months away. There was a recession going on in 1991, and most companies had hiring freezes.
I was so anxious during the interview that I didn’t realize that the director was several months pregnant. When a woman in human resources said “I understand Kathi is expecting,” I nervously replied “Expecting what?” They never let me live that one down.
But I got the job. That weekend, I hit every garage sale I could with my girlfriend (now wife) to find enough dress shirts, pants and ties to be presentable at work. Dad sent me a pair of suits.
It was pretty tough being a full-time student and a USAA writer for a few months. I had classes from 830am-1130am Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so that gave me Monday afternoon to work, as well as 12 hour days on Tuesday and Thursday. I had a three-hour Wednesday afternoon class, and Friday afternoon was reserved for my four-hour radio shift.
The toughest part was the commute from college to the USAA campus. With 10,000 workers going in and out of a company with a building bigger than the Pentagon, I spent lots of time with my car, waiting for traffic, which cut into valuable time. But when I started commuting with my buddy (we got an apartment closer to USAA after graduation) it got easier.
The best part of the job was the co-workers. They treated me like one of their own, even though I was just about the youngest person there. The pay was almost three times the minimum wage for that time, so I was pretty self-sufficient. And when USAA teamed up with several companies to buy the San Antonio Spurs, I was always getting tickets to basketball games. It was a real treat to take my dad to a playoff game for Father’s Day.
You’d think that would have hurt my grades, taking on so much responsibility. But by being so busy, I didn’t have time to procrastinate. And I still made time for some fun parts of college life.
Upon graduation, I moved up to 40 hours a week, the real payoff became apparent. So few of my fellow students had jobs! I missed the big party at South Padre Island (I had to go back to work right after graduation). But I remembered how my friends got me the job. So I always scanned the job line, and stayed in touch with fellow graduates desperate for work. I found so many jobs at USAA for friends that when I left the company, there were more than two dozen classmates at the lunch.
USAA did have a rigid discipline, typical of the military officers that founded the company. But they were always professional and fair. Fortune Magazine rated it one of the 20 best companies in the country to work for (and still do). In my two years, I could see evidence of that every day.
So why did I leave? It was a tough choice. But graduate school came calling. I realized that I proved I could succeed at a place like USAA. If I couldn’t succeed at Marquette University’s Master’s program in International Relations, I could always come back. But I did get my degree, went on to get the doctorate at Florida State University, and became a college professor. Even today, I’m always recommending USAA as a place to work for our own LaGrange College graduates.