Saturday, May 10, 2003

College grads find dream jobs elusive

They want a career. They'll settle for part-time gigs, more school, volunteering

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Xavier University senior Erin Haskins, who will receive a bachelor's degree in psychology next week, will wait a year before starting graduate school. She is looking for a government secretarial job and plans to live with her mother in Maryland.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
In a job market that some college career counselors are calling the worst in a generation, a growing number of graduates are seeking creative alternatives to nonexistent openings in their fields.

Daunted by slim opportunities and a jobless rate that rose to 6 percent last month - the highest for April since 1994 - more graduates are relying on the security of part-time positions they've held throughout college.

Others are making travel plans, applying to graduate school or signing up for national service programs. Still others are heading back to that familiar bed and breakfast at Mom and Dad's.

"With hiring being down, there is an awful lot of talent graduating from ... colleges and universities that are going to be forced into plan B or plan C, where in better economic times plan A would have worked out," said Rick Hearin, director of the career planning and placement office at Miami University.

Career advisers say it's difficult to pin down hard numbers, but there are indicators:

• Advanced degree programs nationwide are inundated with applications. That includes night and weekend MBA programs, medical and law schools, as well as other doctorate programs, said Phil Gardner, director of research at the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

A Job Outlook 2003 spring update survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicates that employers expect to hire about the same number of new college graduates for 2002-03 as they hired in 2001-2002. The survey showed where the best and worst opportunities are for this year's college graduates.
Hot jobs
Construction companies (35.7 percent increase)
Consulting services (14.3 percent increase)
Public accounting firms (14 percent increase)
Cool prospects
Utilities companies (31 percent decrease)
Engineering/surveying firms (29.1 percent decrease)
Chemical manufacturers (22.8 percent decrease)
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, show unemployment on the rise this year. April recorded the highest unemployment rate since 1994, when the rate was 6.4 percent.
• January: 5.7%
• February: 5.8%
• March: 5.8%
• April: 6.0%
• Enrollment in national service programs is up. For example, the Peace Corps, the international organization that has placed volunteers in more than 135 countries worldwide since 1961, has seen a 15 percent increase in applications in the past 12 months compared to the previous year.

"Particularly this year I've had students come to me and say, 'I don't know what I'm doing after graduation,'" said Todd Holcomb, interim assistant vice president for student affairs at Miami. "You can't say, 'I want to be a certain position at a certain company in a certain area.' That's just not happening."

Some determined graduates, however, are landing jobs. But they are working much harder than their siblings did four or five years ago, when graduates fielded multiple offers with bonuses and fat paychecks. Those finding success these days started their searches early, attended job fairs months ago, sent out 50 resumes instead of a dozen and broadened their efforts to nontraditional positions.

In short, graduates are realizing the real world is nothing close to the MTV reality show.

"Any job," is what Erin Haskins is looking for.

The 22-year-old will step to the podium next week to accept her bachelor's degree in psychology from Xavier University. She is sticking with her plan to take a year off before graduate school at University of Maryland in College Park.

She had hoped to gain experience in her field in the meantime, but that isn't happening. Instead, she's looking for a government job doing secretarial work and plans to live with her mother in Maryland.

"It's horrible," says the Dayton, Ohio, native. "When you ask (classmates), it's either, 'I don't know yet' or 'I'm going to grad school' or 'I'm doing volunteer work.' It's better for me to go home and live at home because it's cheaper.

"I never thought I would have to backtrack."

Leah Holt, a chemical engineering and pre-med double major, sent out nearly 100 resumes before she decided to sign up with the National Civilian Community Corps, a 10-month national service program for people age 18-24. Participants serve on environmental, education, public safety, disaster relief and other types of projects.

"I started looking for jobs and I wasn't finding a whole lot," the 24-year-old University of Cincinnati student said. "I've had co-op jobs, but I'm not ready to go out into the workforce and be a full-blown adult. This summer I'm going to work part time and travel."

In a survey released last month, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that companies expect to hire about the same number of new graduates for 2002-03 as they did in 2001-02. In earlier surveys, employers projected a 3.6 percent decline.

Of the respondents, 42.4 percent expect to cut college hiring, about one-third plan to hire more grads, and the remaining companies expect to employ the same number.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of job openings in the Midwest is the lowest in the country at 1.8 openings per 100 jobs compared to 2.3 in the West and 2.4 in the South. Actual hires in the same region went from 782,000 in February 2002 to 684,000 in February 2003, the latest numbers available.

For Doug Simpson, who will leave with a degree in information systems from Northern Kentucky University on May 17, the national statistics confirm what he has experienced since February, when he began to aggressively pursue a full-time job.

Information technology and elementary education majors at NKU have had a particularly rough time finding entry-level openings. State budget cuts coupled with a higher rate of teachers than expected deferring their retirements have reduced the number of positions. And when the economy goes south, so too do IT projects.

"I estimate that I have applied online to 30-plus positions," Simpson said. "As yet, I have received few callbacks or further inquiries."

The 22-year-old from Melbourne has three years of co-op experience, which is a part-time paid position that allows students to gain experience in a certain field.

"I bring technical expertise, business acumen, interpersonal skills, leadership experience and determination to succeed to the table," he said. "All this adds to my frustration at not having a full-time position. I have worked hard to excel, and I have positioned myself for opportunities."

Like many of his graduating peers, he's developing an alternate plan. He will travel to Russia to visit a friend over the summer. After that, he may apply for grad school or join the Air Force.

"I may be able to extend my co-op with GE Aircraft Engines through the summer or until I find a position. However, that is unconfirmed," he said. "These are trying times."

The best advice from career counselors is not to give up.

"There are jobs available for students who persist," Hearin said. "The more people drop out, the easier it will be for those who persist."

Hearin and other career counselors suggest taking an internship after graduation or going into retail as ways to get a foot in the door.

Think hard about going to graduate school, said Lyn Leonard, a career adviser at Miami, because it's not a good fit for everyone.

"You don't choose graduate school because there's nothing else to do," she said.

But the best advice is not to wait. The farther students are removed from college, the harder it is to find a job. If they wait too long, they'll be competing with next year's grads.

"I've seen it," Betsy John Jennings, director of NKU's career development center, said of the job market. "And I've seen us work through this."

For nearly 25 years, she has told students the same thing: "You have to be persistent. You have to be positive. And you need to do your follow-up."


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