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Odd Jobs, Literally : Times Are Still Hard but College Students Can Find Weird Work

August 05, 1993|MARTIN MILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It wasn't so much what college student Bobby Skapik knew, but whom he knew.

A classmate at Chapman University in Orange had passed on a $6-an-hour summer job, and now it was his for the taking. The position seemed pretty straightforward: watching concrete dry.

"It was definitely a who-you-know situation," said Skapik, who pulled a 12-hour shift earlier this summer to make sure a 3-by-5-foot concrete slab on the Chapman campus remained unmarked until it solidified.

With state youth unemployment rates topping 25% in June and a regional economy still trying to shake a stubborn recession, local economists say Skapik was fortunate to find work this summer. Even with a 5% growth spurt in the local tourist industry, representing some 5,000 jobs, economists say this summer has been tough going for college-age job seekers looking to pay for coming school expenses.

"Last year was horrible," said Dr. Esmael Adibi, director of the Center for Economic Research at Chapman University. "So, if last year was horrible, this year has to be considered 5% better than horrible."

Skapik, a 21-year-old environmental science major, said he has learned a valuable lesson in economics during his job searches this summer.

"When scarcity overrides absurdity, you take any job you can get," said Skapik, who is now working part time at a college game room.

Most college students who find employment wind up in either clerical or food-service jobs for the summer, local university placement offices report. But employers trying to fill unusual jobs often head to college campuses, banking on financial necessity and youthful open-mindedness to fill their vacancies.

"The community comes up with all sorts of unusual things, and they know the college kids will do it," said Steve Woodyard, student employment director at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. "We get all kinds of weird things down here."

Skapik's concrete-watching job certainly ranks as one of this summer's strangest--and probably most boring--temporary occupations. The most difficult part of the job was simply passing the time.

"They really didn't mind what I did, so I brought a radio and laid out," he said. "I got a pretty good tan. I had a base tan already, so I just got darker."

James Lac, a 21-year-old student at Orange Coast College, also scored a summer job that didn't exactly call for a rocket scientist. He counted cars.

Assigned to various intersections throughout Orange County, Lac would count about 5,000 cars a day in three two-hour shifts, three times a week. He was paid $6 an hour by Traffic Counts Inc. of Costa Mesa, which prepares traffic studies for private and government agencies.

"Every time a car goes by, I press a button," said Lac, a Fountain Valley resident who is studying to be a radiology technician. "It's not much, really."

Sometimes, the work varied, Lac said: He would count cars that made left or right turns.

Lac said he doubted he would put this on his resume.

Two other local college students deliberately sought odd summer jobs that would give them a good background for their future careers.

Evan Jacobs, 19, an aspiring boxing commentator, is what his employer refers to as a "human directional sign." Basically, for $8 an hour about 10 hours a week, he stands at an intersection and points potential customers toward a new housing project.

And one more thing: He dresses as a clown.

"If I were younger and my Dad were driving me around town and he saw someone like me dressed as a clown," Jacobs said, "I would imagine him saying: 'If you are bad, this is what you will end up doing.' "

Jacobs said he enjoys the contact with people, most of whom are friendly and even wave back. But there are exceptions, and every now and then he sees an obscene gesture.

"At the end of the day some people don't want to embrace the clown. People need to be more aware of their clown consciousness."

Whatever its drawbacks, Jacobs said he definitely will add his summer clown stint to his resume.

"It lets people know I'm outgoing," he said. "There's not a whole lot you can't get me to do. After this, how hard would it be to stand in front of cameras and discuss boxing?"

Casey Buchanan, who like Jacobs is enrolled at Orange Coast College, said her summer job also requires her to don a costume. But she must interact far more with her audience. The aspiring elementary-school teacher dresses up as fictional characters from such tales as "Alice in Wonderland" and "Cinderella" and acts out stories to entertain as many as 30 children at parties.

"It's great field experience. I get to work with kids I'd never get to work with otherwise," said the 30-year-old Costa Mesa resident. "The kids love you. It's just the best, and it's a chance to make a child's day."

But like Jacobs, Buchanan sometimes encounters people who aren't having a good time.

"Every once in a while, you get the party with the one obnoxious kid who says you're not Princess Jasmine," said Buchanan, who sharpens her improvisational skills under such fire.

"You've got to be quick with these kids or they will just nail you."

Employed by Creative Parties for Kids in Newport Beach, she receives $40 an hour. But the work, says Buchanan, is sporadic.

Some work is better than none. Perhaps it was the weak economy or maybe it's just a dying art, but this summer the demand for "bubble-ologists" vanished. Marge Nielsen of Saddleback College's student employment center said that last year, an employer sought someone who could "blow enormous bubbles to entertain kids" at parties.

"Now, that was unusual," Nielsen said.

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