BOSTON — FOR many college seniors this spring, graduation is not the long-awaited jump from academia to the workplace, it is the moment to start looking for a job full time.
"A lot of people think a degree will get them a job," says Craig Fairfield, who graduated from Yale University last week with a job offer in hand. "Maybe in 1950, but not anymore. It might get you the interview, but you still have to prove yourself."
Instead of heading straight for a career-track position, many of this year's graduates are heading home to start a job search that promises to be grueling.
"The graduating class of 1993 is facing a tougher labor market than those who graduated in the middle of the recession in 1991," says Ken Goldstein, an economist with the Conference Board in New York.
Some new employment statistics are encouraging. On Friday, the Labor Department reported that the national unemployment rate dropped to 6.9 percent from 7 percent last month. But that report followed an announcement Thursday of a slight increase in first-time claims for unemployment benefits.
A tough job market is no surprise to the Class of '93, says Richard Fein, director of placement at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "This is the fourth year of recession," Mr. Fein says. "These folks came into college when the recession had already begun. Their level of expectation was more realistic - they knew it was going to be difficult."
Yet the new administration in Washington raised hopes of an economic revival. "We felt that things were going to pick up - but we are still waiting," says Tarique Shakoor, director of the Career Placement Center at Emory University in Atlanta.
In 1990, about 20 percent of college graduates were unemployed or working in jobs that did not require a degree, says Daniel Hecker, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Graduates of 1993 are expected to face a similar situation. Moreover his colleague, Kristina Shelley, projects that over the next decade, the number of college grads entering jobs not requiring a degree will rise to 30 percent.
"There are fewer opportunities," says Tom Cath, director of career planning at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. "But they are out there for those who are creative and resourceful, have thick skins, and are persistent."
In a survey released last week, the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University (MSU) reported that employers expect to hire 2.9 percent more graduates this year than last. The survey also said that 15.4 percent of positions available for 1992-93 remain to be filled.
"The market has decreased about 35 percent over the last four years," says L. Patrick Scheetz, the institute's director. "So a recovery of 2.9 percent against a loss of 35 percent is some
positive change, but there is still a long way to go."
The MSU survey, which polls more than 500 employers, pointed to a surprising fact: There are whole categories of jobs that do not interest many graduates. "Jobs still go begging in sales," Mr. Scheetz says. For many organizations, the entry-level job is in sales. Once employees demonstrate competence, they can move on to other positions.
The tough economy is forcing both colleges and students to rethink their strategies. On-campus recruiting is not bringing the same results as it used to. "The on-campus recruiting that was almost like a vacuum cleaner five years ago - scooping people up - is not going to happen again," says Fein, who is also the author of "First Job: A New Grad's Guide to Launching Your Business Career."
"Big, old firms have very traditional recruiting methods," says Maureen McNulty, director of the Career Management Center at Stanford Business School. "But every year we lose some of them to the economy."
Many colleges are reaching out to small and mid-size firms that have not traditionally recruited on campus. "Companies with less than 200 people are where most of the growth is in the economy today," Mr. Shakoor says. Students "cannot sit back and wait for something to happen through the vehicle of on-campus recruitment."
Counselors are advising grads to be open to new routes to finding full-time employment, including:
Volunteer or part-time work. This lowers the risk for firms, increasing the likelihood of a trial employment period.
Internships and cooperative education. Employers put a premium on real experience. "They are looking more and more for career-related work experiences all the way from freshman to senior year," Scheetz says.
More networking. Graduates are encouraged to pursue any corporate contact they have ever had as a potential lead.
Heading off campus for interviews. Mr. Fairfield says two friends at Yale ditched the regular recruiting channels. They went to a job fair in New York at which both got offers. "If they were both on campus competing against other students here, they probably would not have gotten those jobs," he says.
One thing is certain: Companies that are hiring have increased the stakes. Employers are raising the floor for minimum acceptable grade point averages, for example, from 3.0 to 3.5 on a four-point scale. Getting a job today takes a lot of creativity, Fein says. "You have to find what it is about you and your experiences that appeal to a firm, and you are not going to find that in a book."