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U. of C. MBA grad spurns job market for alternative energy startup

This May 2 2012 phoshows Daniel Shani University Chicago campus. In June 2012 25 Shani graduates with an MBA from

This May 2, 2012 photo shows Daniel Shani on the University of Chicago campus. In June 2012, at 25, Shani graduates with an MBA from the university's Booth School of Business. Up next: a job heading his own company, Energy Intelligence LLC, an alternative energy startup based in Massachusetts. Many of his classmates will join high-powered financial, consulting and marketing firms. But he'll be his own boss, trying to convert a bold idea into a successful venture. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:17AM

It’s a time when hope collides with economic reality, when the relief of that last class and the thrill of holding that diploma give way to the next big step — finding a job.

For the Class of 2012, the optimism of graduation is clouded by the uncertain aftermath of the worst economic slide since the Depression.

Last year, graduates 24 and younger posted a 9.3 percent jobless rate; since then, there have been signs of progress. Unemployment averaged 7.2 percent during the first third of this year, compared with 9.1 percent in the same period in 2011. And one survey estimates that about 7 percent more new college grads will find work this year than a year ago.

But the job market is still tight and graduates — whether they’re embarking on a career from high school, college or in mid-life — are entering a work world where salaries have not rebounded since falling during the recession.

For thousands of new graduates making the big transition this spring, there are pressures to find jobs quickly, pay off loans and, in some cases, start a second career, all against the backdrop of the slow-healing economy.

A degree and debt

Now that Chad Larsen-Stauber has a teaching degree, the inevitable question races through his mind: What will come first — a job or the bill for the first installment on his hefty loans?

The 26-year-old who just received his master’s degree in education from the University of Illinois-Chicago knows that in three months, he’ll have to start paying off debt of about $100,000.

“This is going to be looming over my head the next 20 years,” Larsen-Stauber says. “You’ve borrowed all of this money and it just comes due all of a sudden. When you’re already going into a low-wage job and you know that a third of your salary is immediately going to be eaten up ... that’s really frightening.”

But not unexpected.

Larsen-Stauber is working with loan companies on payment plans; about 75 percent of his debts are from grad school. It seems overwhelming, but he says, “there never has been a regret in my mind. I knew when I started this program, I was 100 percent sure. ... If there was one job that I ever wanted, it was to be a teacher.”

Larsen-Stauber realized that three years ago when he received a bachelor’s degree in communication. On graduation day, his parents posed a question: “’If you had to work the rest of your life and you never had to worry about money, what would you do?’”

Larsen-Stauber moved back in with his parents in the western suburbs, became a teacher’s assistant for a year, working with autistic and Down syndrome students in a middle school. Then he enrolled at UIC for a graduate degree.

As a teacher, Larsen-Stauber expects his salary will put a crimp in his lifestyle. It’ll affect everything, from where he lives to his dreams of global travel. “The possibilities that seemed limitless at one point are very downsized,” he says. “In the end, it’s a small price to pay for what you want to do.”

He’s now finishing his student teaching, working with kids with learning and behavioral disabilities. By fall, he hopes to be a Chicago public school teacher.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘Take whatever job you can get. You can do anything for a year.’ ...I’m going into this with an open mind. What I love to do is teach, and I will teach anywhere at this point.”

Taking a gamble

At 23, Daniel Shani launched his first business — an online professional networking site.

At 24, while in school, he was working on his second venture — an alternative outdoor advertising company.

In June, at 25, Shani graduates with an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Up next: a job heading his own company, Energy Intelligence LLC, an alternative energy startup based in Massachusetts.

Many of Shani’s classmates will join high-powered financial, consulting and marketing firms (93 percent of last year’s graduates had job offers within three months; the median starting salary was $107,000). But he’ll be his own boss, trying to convert a bold idea into a successful venture.

It’s a gamble, but he’s game.

“There’s probably a fine line between anxiety, confidence and craziness,” Shani says. “You absolutely need a very high tolerance for risk. I have given up amazing opportunities in terms of recruitment on campus. ... [But] I’m more excited about building something from nothing.”

Shani already is talking with venture capitalists and corporations about financing and collaboration and has applied for two federal grants. Though the fragile economy could squeeze potential investors, he isn’t discouraged.

“I think now is a great time to start a business,” he says. “It’s so cheap today relative to any time in history to test an idea and put together a product.”

Energy Intelligence wants to embed devices in road surfaces, mostly busy streets and highways, that would capture some of the energy vehicles lose (through heat, friction and pressure on the pavement) when they slow down — for example, when they approach toll booths. That energy would be transformed into electricity and sent to the national power grid or directly to street lamps, toll booths, or illuminated signs, for example.

Shani has consulted with engineers and researchers on the technology and sought advice from the Argonne National Laboratory, which uses supercomputers to analyze traffic patterns and can test how the devices perform.

“I feel like I’m a problem solver,” he says. “Entrepreneurs first and foremost are looking to solve a problem. They’re much less drawn to the dream of glory and fame. It’s really not about the money. ... I really would like to make a difference in the world.”

If he fails? There are many possibilities, he says.

But, he adds: “I can tell you where I won’t be — at a desk job following the same routine every day.”

Leaving the assembly line

In 15 years on a Chrysler line in Belvidere, near Rockford, Mike Szlamczynski never had reason to ponder a future with succotash, lobster bisque and fava beans.

Autos were his career, autos paid his bills. Then came the near collapse of Chrysler, the looming bankruptcy and a veteran assembly line worker facing middle age, anxiety and unnerving questions: “What happens if they close the doors? What will I do?”

Szlamczynski didn’t wait for an answer. He took a buyout, returned to college at age 41 and studied to be a chef. He wanted financial security, no more layoffs, no more fears of losing it all

“I was tired of worrying,” he says. “I had nothing to fall back on. If you have an education, that’s something they can’t take away from you. You have options. Before, I didn’t have any options.”

On May 12, Szlamczynski officially changed that. The man who dropped out of school 20 years ago after concentrating on fun more than work graduated from Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville, Wis., with an associate’s degree in culinary arts and a 3.8 average — “a huge accomplishment,” he says.

Most importantly, he left with a coveted commodity: a job as a cook at a casino-resort in New York state.

He had reservations about returning to the classroom.

“It was probably the scariest thing I ever had to do — to drive to the school the first day,” he says. “I’d been out of school for 20-something years. I didn’t know if I could do it. I thought there were going to be a lot of younger people out there, I’m going to feel way out of place. ... But I said, ‘This is my last chance. This is my one shot. It’s do or die.’”

Szlamczynski found school transforming. “I talk more intelligently,” he says. “I think more intelligently. You just look at things differently. You just really appreciate things you didn’t know about before.”

Still, at 43, he’s naturally apprehensive.

“Can I do this? Am I cut out for this? ... I’m really happy I do have a job and I don’t have to go searching. That’s a huge relief. It’s a whole new life,” he said. “And I’m following my dream.”


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