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Sunday Feature: Justifying the Lion

By Ethan Woodhouse

Sept. 30, 2012. Just before 7 a.m. on a September morning in Boone, the sun has yet to rise over the mountains eastward. The early morning skyline is streaked orange and grey as it awaits the rising sun. The air has a stinging chill and is eerily still. In the Watauga Village Shopping Center, Walmart’s parking lot is already coming to life, with handfuls of shoppers scattered across the black top.

Zack Huber parks his silver Jeep Liberty on the far side of shopping center, where the black top is still empty. He lurches from the vehicle and out into the cool air, groggily strolling towards the Food Lion at the end of the strip mall, between Michaels Art and Crafts and a Little Caesar’s.

Photo by Kristen Morris

Zack is the assistant customer service manager at Food Lion #1503, but he hasn’t always worked for the Food Lion in Boone. Zack started as a bagger at a store in Burlington over 10 years ago.

While Zack has attained a heighten post in the Food Lion pecking order, working there is not his dream job. Zack graduated from Appalachian State University in December 2007 after spending his tenure at the university with about 30 other students in a learning community. All the students in his community were focused in Chemistry, Biology or Criminal Justice. And they all took their classes together.

Several days earlier, the 26-year-old is sitting in his two-bedroom apartment. It is just after 1 p.m. and he has yet to change out of his pajamas. “I’m off today,” He says. “I’m going to take a nap after this.” He fiddles with his Game Boy Color, flips off the game of Pokémon and begins re-examining his career at A.S.U.

“My original major was Chemistry. And that proved disastrous,” Zack says while fidgeting on the couch. “Then I started to take biology and did terrible. So I quickly stopped that. Then it was Criminal Justice.”

Zack says the learning community he was placed in helped to make his major pathway decision for him. “I just went with the flow. To an extent, I’d say I was pigeonholed,” Zack says. Through his learning community, Zack had already taken several criminal justice classes. “When I knew that the science stuff was not happening, I was like ‘Ok, I can just fall back on the criminal justice stuff.’ I had no clue really. Does anybody?”

 Zack earned his B.S. in Criminal Justice after just 3-and-a-half years, an impressive feat in an age when many students flounder through at least five years of college. He spent the spring following his graduation as an intern with the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency.

 “My original plan, after I graduated with my undergrad, was to go home and find a job. So I applied to one job, with the organization I did my undergrad internship with. I didn’t get it.” Zack believes lack of experience kept him out of the job, so he applied to graduate school, prolonging his search for a career. He was accepted and began studying in the fall of 2008.

Of the seven students who enrolled in the Graduate Criminal Justice Program that fall, two finished, Zack being one of them. He graduated in Spring 2010 with a M.S. in Criminal Justice and Criminology. Half of all people with Associates Degrees do not receive their degree until the age of 25. Zack had his Master’s by that time.

Without experience, finding a job in most fields can be difficult, but Doctor Kenneth Mullen, Director of the Master of Sciences Criminal Justice Program at A.S.U. says that “most” A.S.U. criminal justice grads are placed in the field, though it is hard to keep track of them. Most agencies in the field require three years of experience, Mullen added, but the Master’s Degree often can replace that requirement.

After graduate school, Zack applied for work as a Court Counselor for Avery, Watauga and Wilkes County and as a Clerk of Court in Boone. “I like working with young people because it makes you feel younger and with that kind of work you feel like you can make a difference,” Zack says. “If I can impart some kind of knowledge on to someone, I feel I’ve accomplished something with my life.”

Zack’s Master’s did not represent a replacement for experience to his potential employers and he did not receive a callback from either position. He has not applied to another position in the field since.

“Getting a job as a counselor is not only more difficult, but under the last North Carolina budget, in the arena of Criminal Justice, Juvenile Court Counselors was one of the worst hit sections,” Dr. Mullen said.  The North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is facing $15.5 million in spending cuts for 2012 and over 300 jobs have been cut in the past four years.

“It forced smaller counties to combine their counselor positions,” Mullen said, pointing out Zack’s counselor position was for three area counties, not just Watauga. “There is no guarantee of employment in this field, even with a degree. If I had one recommendation for Zack, he needs to get a hell of a lot more applications out there with agencies. There are agencies out there that are hiring. It may not be perfect, but it’s a start.”

Mullen says he majority of C.J. majors start out working in law enforcement, but being a cop was never an option to Zack, for a plethora of reasons. “It can be potentially dangerous,” Zack says. “Professors have always described it to me as a monotonous job with potential moments of sheer terror. I don’t want that. I don’t want a gun.” The stigmatization young people can hold against law enforcement is something Zack never worried about either, because “you can be a good cop.” Zack says he would rather work at Food Lion than be an officer of the law.

“Is he aiming too high?” Sharon Jenson, Associate Director at the Career Development Center asks. “Even applying to an entry level job is important. The economic climate has caused Master’s level students to start at lower levels. It may not be you, it could be the economic climate, and in it sometimes we see students clinging to jobs because of the relationships they’ve formed.”

An hour into Zack’s shift, the sun has fully risen over the still empty parking lot and members from each department have arrived at the store. Zack sways idly in the store’s central kiosk as the generic grocery store radio pours tunes out above him.

Zack has a checklist of his own to take care of, counting the safe, checking deposits and handling the morning close, but without a cashier on duty he finds himself bouncing back and forth from the office to his register as the occasional customer makes a purchase. As Zack searches for the $100 missing from his safe count, a trio of customers seemingly appears out of thin air.

“We got a lot of ‘em this morning, don’t we Zack?” Head Customer Service Manager Janice Hodges, a 15-year Food Lion veteran says. “This is not a normal morning.” When Janice is asked about working with Zack, she glows like a proud mother. “Last year we stepped him up to assistant customer service manager and then he really took charge of his position,” she says. “He was knowledgeable, he was willing to learn, he asked questions, he showed an interest in it and took it upon himself to learn it.”

After handling his customers, Zack finishes the safe count. The full deposit is $4,351. But more issues arise. A cashier from the previous night accepted a check without a signature.

“Why can’t people do their job right?” Zack says sarcastically.

“Because they suck!” Natalie Bennet, retail-pricing coordinator, calls from the other side of the store as she approaches Zack.

Zack turns on the computer monitor and asks Natalie what an email entitled “Seasonal Crème Offer” could entail. “Just coffee crème,” she says. “Got a shipment of liquid peppermint coming in.”

“The title sounded seductive,” Zack replies.

“How about an order of liquid hot magma?” Natalie quips.

As the Krispy Kreme delivery truck pulls to the storefront around 8:30 a.m., Chris, a produce worker, rushes to the front of the store to purchase fresh donuts. “They’re worthless if you don’t get them fresh,” Chris says between mouthfuls of donut, offering the open box to Zack, who politely declines.

The friendships developed with his coworkers help Zack keep a level head through the daily drone. “As I’ve gotten older my school friends have gone on and moved away so my friends at work are my only friends up here,” Zack says back at his apartment. “They make bad days better and good days even better. It’s why I love my job.”

 Customers make or break Zack’s day at the job as well.. “I’ve worked there long enough to get to know some of these people and they make your day to see them sometimes,” Zack says. “On the other side of the coin there are also those bastard people who you hate. They can ruin your day by just walking into the store. Sometimes I just brush my shoulders off and other days I want to follow them home and kill their cat.”

Photo by Kristen Morris

After 10 years of work, Zack has increased his pay to just over $11-an-hour, making about $23,000 a year. This puts Zack in exclusive company; only 7 percent of people with Master’s Degrees are part of the Middle-class workforce, according to a study published by Georgetown University. Criminal Justice majors working outside their field also make on average $30,000 annually, according to the same study.

A study published in 2010 in the Journal of Business & Psychology characterized Millennials as valuing leisure, not being embarrassed by wasted time and taking less pride in hard work than earlier generations. As Zack grows older with his generation, more and more he seems to agree to the philosophy seemingly embraced by his fellow Millennials, “The best things in life are those that you wait for.”

Is Zack a victim of circumstance or merely another lazy Generation-Y-er? The rapidness in which he completed his Master’s and method in ascending the Food Lion ladder suggests a well-developed work ethic. His G.P.A. (3.1 in Undergrad, 3.6 in Grad) suggests a high-level intelligence. His shortage of completed job applications suggests apathy.

“It’s more so me holding myself back,” Zack says as he rubs his chin in deep thought. “I’m not going to blame anyone else but me for not having a job in my field. I can always say, ‘Oh, well, the economy’s bad,’ but I also only applied for three jobs. I can’t hold anyone accountable other than myself, but I’m ok with that.”

By 9 a.m., when the first shift cashier has come in, Zack has served 29 customers and made the store’s first $329, a fraction of the store’s daily total, which Zack says has been hovering around $20,000 lately.

Between the medial pay, coworkers and customers, both good and bad, Food Lion has grown to be a home to Zack. “I used to never think Food Lion could be a career for me,” he says. “I’ve slowly come to terms with the notion that the world wouldn’t end if I worked for Food Lion forever. I’m kinda just letting life happen, I’m not really planning on looking for something different but I’m not planning on working at Food Lion forever. Whatever happens happens, whenever it decides to happen,” Zack says as he makes his way back to the office.

Carrying his til, with $2o-dollar-bills flailing from their slot, the Food Lion radio has started playing a tune that goes something like “Don’t, stop, thinkin’ about tomorrow.” Zack hasn’t, but he has to get through today’s shift first. He glances at his phone and asks, “Is it 3 o’clock yet?” Sadly, it is not, Zack has 6 hours of work left to do for Food Lion. And another shift tomorrow.

Ethan Woodhouse is a freelance writer based in Boone and a journalism student at Appalachian State University. This story was submitted to High Country Press as a Sunday feature/human interest story.