- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

As college students prepare to pick up diplomas in May, they face the tightest job crunch in many years and one that has many rethinking degree choices or downgrading their hopes for the career of their dreams.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which tracks hiring data from schools and companies, released a grim “Job Outlook” report for spring 2009 showing that the broader economic recession has finally hit the hiring of new college graduates. According to the survey, companies expected to hire 22 percent fewer graduates out of the spring class of 2009 than the spring class of 2008 — the first actual drop in the past six years of figures in the survey.

Of the previous 11 academic semesters cited in the survey since fall 2004, all had seen increases in hiring and nine were double-digit percent rises. The fall 2008 semester, when the broad economic recession really began to hit, saw an anemic increase in hiring — 1.3 percent — but an increase nevertheless. This spring is when the hiring really dried up.

The report “clearly indicates that college hiring will not be immune to the spate of bad economic news. As the economy has continued to falter, it is clear that employers are now limiting, in a significant way, their hiring plans across all types of candidates, including new college graduates,” the report said. “Much of the decline in college hiring has occurred in the past couple of months, and suggests a difficult spring recruiting season for 2009 graduates.”

Of course, having the right career choice helps — Wall Street finance is out, and high-tech and government service, including the military, are in. Good grades, real-world experience and face-to-face social skills matter too, as the tight job market mean employers are being pickier about the people they do hire.

“What we have heard from the colleges is there is not as much hiring but there are a lot of jobs out there, they just have to look harder,” says Andrea Koncz of Bethlehem, Pa.-based NACE.

“They might not get the exact job that they want right out of school so they might have to take something for now and eventually move into the field where they actually would like to be,” she said.

Some students are riding out the recession by seeking work in service fields such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, “both of which are being expanded this year,” adds Laurence Shatkin, the author of several books about employment including the “200 Best Jobs for College Graduates.” “These are ways to get skills like self-reliance and resourcefulness that many employers respect. You come out of that and go into many careers.”

Graduate school enrollment also is up this year as many seek to stay in school and get more experience in the hope that an economic turnaround will greet them when they seek employment in a couple years. Other opportunities for those having trouble in the civilian work force include careers in the military, where top students can learn on the job.

“In some ways, it might be better to go into the military and get some occupational training,” Mr. Shatkin said, noting that today’s military has a smaller need for jobs in the foxholes and plenty of opportunity for high-tech jobs.

In general, however, the economy “has limited opportunity a great deal,” Mr. Slatkin says of the overall picture. “Some industries like high-tech and health care are still doing very well. Engineering careers tend to fluctuate with the economy, but over the long haul they can be a very good choice.”

At the University of Florida, engineering Associate Dean Angela Lindner agrees, speaking of her field in a way that many others can’t.

“There’s a lot of hope out there,” she says of the job market for emerging graduates in her school. “I haven’t seen any student have difficulty finding jobs in the past two semesters. We’ve seen a lot of students have their pick of jobs.”

Elsewhere, some aren’t so lucky. Michigan journalism senior Michelle Martin, 22, recently changed her Facebook page status to reflect her employment frustrations as the media job market continues to shrink. Even with two internships and solid real-world experience, her worries continue to mount.

“Sick of sleepless nights and panic attacks. Job experience means nothing when no one is hiring,” she posted.

“I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” the Detroit-area student later confides by phone of her fruitless job search. “I’ve worked really hard to do everything right and now the days are counting down, the lease is running out on my apartment. I will not have an income when I graduate, but I will have student loan debt and just expenses from my life. … That is scary.”

And for those hoping for a Gordon Gekko-esque future in Wall Street finance? Forget about it for now, Mr. Slatkin said. The same goes for print journalism, although Mr. Slatkin foresees jobs in electronic media and public relations. “Compared to newspapers that rely on the written word, it’s a safe place to be,” he says of public relations.

According to the NACE report breakdown by industry, hiring in the finance industry is expected to be off 71 percent this spring, while professional and business services both reported their new employment to be off by about one-third.

The only fields where employers told NACE that they expected to hire more were government (a 6 percent increase) and distribution, transportation, and utilities (a 69 percent increase, though the report warned against reading too much into numbers from such a small and disparate field).

Law enforcement, actuarial science and some specialty areas of teaching, such as special education and math and sciences, are also places where job prospects remain bright, Mr. Slatkin said. Money from President Obama’s economic stimulus plan may also open up more work in government programs that offer paid apprenticeships, which he has dubbed “the other four-year degree.”

Competition for existing jobs, however, has tightened significantly, Mrs. Koncz of NACE warns, with 70 percent to 75 percent of employers screening student job applicants by their grades.

She says that “3.0 is usually the cutoff, so that’s probably the most important thing that they will have to have as their resumes are screened.”

Three-quarters of employers said in an NACE survey that they would prefer new graduates with work experience from internships, while close to 20 percent said any work experience, relevant or otherwise, factors in who they choose to hire. Evidence of teamwork, organizational skills and communication are also key, the latter handicapping some students who rely on electronic conveyance more than face-to-face exchanges.

“A lot of times students mention that maybe they are used to texting or e-mail or social networking to communicate, so they may not be as good face to face with people,” Mrs. Koncz said. “They need to know that that is an important skill to work on if they expect to find a job.”

Her association identified five top academic majors where students are finding work: accounting, engineering, business management, computer science and health sciences. Regionally, the market is toughest in the Northeast and the West.

The NACE survey found little change in salaries for new hires from the class of 2008 to the latest crop of graduates this spring.

The average salary for students with a bachelor’s degree was $49,353 for new hires, versus $49,300 for those hired in 2008. Business majors saw a rise of about 2.6 percent, with business management/administration grads seeing a higher salary spike at 4.7 percent.

Computer science salaries fell 1.4 percent while engineering salaries rose 2.2 percent, a dip from 2008 when starting salaries went up 5.7 percent. Overall, engineers earned starting salaries at $58,525 this year, the NACE study found.

For some, just about any salary in their chosen field would be fine, given the alternative.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” says Miss Martin, the student from Detroit, with grim resolve. “Whether New York or Nebraska, I have to go wherever the job is. My parents had to do the same thing in the ‘80s, and I know that’s how it is now. I’m hoping the economy will bounce back pretty soon, though, because I love the degree that I’m getting and I’d really like to be able to use it.”

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