WASHINGTON — It’s almost 6 p.m. on a Friday and the tables near the bar at The Hamilton in downtown Washington are getting crowded. That means waitress Victoria Honard is busy.
Honard, 22, who graduated from Syracuse University in May, works about 25 hours a week at the restaurant while looking for a job related to public policy. She moved to Washington four days after graduation with the hope of finding a position at a think tank or policy-related organization, she said, and has applied to about 20 prospective employers.
“The response has been minimal,” said Honard, whose degree focused on education, health and human services. “There are two ways of looking at it. I could be extremely frustrated and be bitter, or I can make the most of it, and I’m trying to take the latter approach.”
Unemployment data appear to reflect big advances for women. The jobless rate in August for females 20 years and older was 6.3 percent, the lowest since December 2008, compared with 7.1 percent for men. As recently as January, the rate was 7.3 percent for both genders, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The downside is that the gains have been largely in lower- paying industries such as waitresses, in-home health care, food preparation and housekeeping. About 60 percent of the increase in employment for women from 2009 to 2012 was in jobs that pay less than $10.10 an hour, compared with 20 percent for men, according to a study by the National Women’s Law Center using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The numbers expose a soft spot in an economic recovery that has reduced the overall unemployment rate to 7.3 percent from 10 percent in October 2009. Quality of jobs is an increasing concern for U.S. policy makers and economists since it affects the level of incomes and wage disparities.
Of the 125,000 jobs women gained last month, 54,000 were in retail, leisure and hospitality, and just 24,000 in professional and business services. Many of those are part-time, 34 hours or less a week.
Food services and drinking places have added 354,000 jobs this year alone. “The place jobs have grown the most has been in these parts of the economy that women have traditionally filled more easily,” said Diane Swonk, who studies labor trends as chief economist for Mesirow Financial in Chicago.
Women have taken restaurant and retail jobs instead of teaching and other public-sector career positions that have disappeared, said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the Washington-based law center. Females lost 444,000 public-sector jobs in the four years starting in June 2009, when the recession ended, compared with 290,000 for men.
“They are taking jobs as baristas in Starbucks and other jobs that used to go to people without college degrees,” Entmacher said. “It’s an anecdote but it’s also a fact.”
Women who worked full-time in 2012 received $37,791 in median income, 77 percent of what men earned, the Census Bureau said in a report Sept. 17. That percentage has changed little since 2007. The number of men working full-time rose by 1 million from 2011 to 2012, while the change for women wasn’t statistically significant, according to the bureau’s data.
“The very definition of what it means to be middle class is being undercut by trends in our economy that must be addressed,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a Sept. 17 speech in Washington. “These trends — like the increase in income inequality and the decline in upward mobility — did not happen overnight.”
While students and recent graduates are taking low-wage jobs to get started, other women are turning them down. About 2 million married women have dropped out of the work force since 2008.
“If they’re in a two-income house they’re more willing to drop out and take care of the children because it costs too much for day care,” Swonk said.
Quality of jobs is tied directly to economic growth, she said.
“Growth is a magician when it comes to employment because it pulls people out of the woodwork that might not have worked otherwise and gives them an opportunity,” Swonk said. “We’re not going to have robust growth for a while.”
Education may eventually shift the trend in favor of women, who accounted for a record 52 percent of college graduates in 2012. They passed men in 2005 and have gradually increased the lead every year since.
After finishing a one-year residency in New York, Monica Delwadia, a 29-year-old dentist, started working three days a week at a clinic in Leesburg, Va. She was married in July and moved in with her husband in Germantown, Md. Since Delwadia is licensed to work as dentist in Virginia and not in Maryland, she commutes 50 minutes to make the 33-mile drive each way to Leesburg.
“It seems to me there might be a little bit of an economy effect,” said Delwadia, who attended Emory University in Atlanta and went to the University of Tennessee’s College of Dentistry in Memphis. In better times, patients are more willing to pay for preventive and cosmetic work, she said.
“Now it’s more like, ‘This one tooth is bothering me. Let’s just take care of this, and I’ll call you if I want to do the rest of the work,'” she said.
Delwadia likes the clinic and said she hopes to pick up more hours. She said she also may eventually look for a second job at another dental office.
Some students not yet in the workforce are bracing themselves for settling for jobs outside their area of study.
Alexandra Allmand, 22, said it might be difficult to find a position in human resources or recruiting when she graduates from George Washington University in December.
Allmand, who studies psychology, is a hostess at District Commons, a restaurant near the university’s campus in Washington. She said she will look for internships in addition to jobs “because I can’t be picky.”
For many workers in their 20s, “it’s catch-as-catch-can,” said Stephen Bronars, senior economist at Welch Consulting in Washington, who specializes in employment and labor issues. “The economy hasn’t really picked up enough to get all of them into full-time work.”
At the Hamilton, two blocks from the White House, Honard often waits on lawmakers and government officials, giving her a glimpse of people she would like to work with someday. This summer she served a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, to whom she recommended a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.
Though she doesn’t want to stick with it long-term, waiting tables comes easily to Honard. As soon as she turned 18, the minimum age for working where alcohol is served, she started as a waitress at Calamari’s Squid Row, the restaurant her parents own in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she grew up.
She decided to move to Washington because it’s an obvious destination for those working in public policy and she enjoyed the city during an internship with a charter school organization two summers ago.
Honard said she frequently searches Syracuse’s alumni program to scout for job openings and uses a network the university has on LinkedIn’s website.
“It’s a gradual process, and I try to be systematic about it,” she said. “I’m just lucky I have something to support myself in the meantime.”