Job outlook for grads: off peak, but not bleak

No more multiple job offers. No huge signing bonuses. No stock options. No zany job titles. And not a lot of cool.

That's the downside of the job market facing this year's college graduates - the first class in several years to leave the halls of academia for a marketplace that isn't sizzling with growth, opportunity, and a host of hip workplaces.

But there is a definite upside to today's job market. Despite the tanking of dotcoms (with their freewheeling jobs like "vice president of cool") and the nosedive of the nation's high-tech sector, experts say the employment outlook for college graduates is strong.

In fact, according to an April survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which tracks job-market information, nearly 1 in 5 employers are planning to hire more employees this year than last.

'Still a solid market'

"Overall, it's still a solid labor market," says Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "It's certainly not as generous as it was over the last couple of years, but salaries tend to be up, and they tend to be good."

That said, however, experts note that students face a markedly different hiring landscape from last year's graduating class. Forget about the "feeding frenzies" in which employers were snapping up workers as fast as they could. As more and more employers cautiously watch the nation's changing economy - hiring later and at slower rates - the class of 2001 is having to find jobs the old-fashioned way: with a lot of effort.

"We actually have to work at finding jobs," says Andrew Wang, a graduating MBA student at UCLA's Anderson School of Management who witnessed last year's hiring free-for-all. "It's not fun, but at least it forces you to figure out what it is you really want to do."

Mr. Wang, like many of his fellow MBA students, says the changing job market has "forced me to rethink my job-search strategy."

He's networking a lot, getting his resume out in as many ways as he can (he even e-mailed one to this reporter), and he's shifted his focus away from large high-tech companies.

"I've had this lifelong interest in cycling, so I'm now looking at the recreational industry for product-management positions," he says. "I've learned [they] don't pay as well, but you're doing something that you like."

Although a recent survey by Jobtrack.com found that 30 percent of graduating students still expect to receive four or more job offers by the time they graduate, employment experts say students are increasingly tempering their personal expectations.

Although many still expect - or place a high priority on - good salaries, students are looking more carefully at job offers and potential employers, placing a higher priority on stability than did graduates in previous years.

"Last year blew long-term career goals out of the water," says Alysa Polkes, director for the MBA Career Management Center at UCLA's Anderson School. "This year, students seem back to thinking of a career as an opportunity to better yourself, to give you skills that you need to grow down the road.

"This year," she adds, "[the attitude] is more, 'I'm going to take something solid that will serve me well, but it's not going to be the be all and end all.' "

Not a bad time for liberal arts

Experts say demand for engineering and computer-science graduates continues to be high, especially in job markets outside the high-tech worlds of California and Massachusetts.

But they also note that it's not a bad time to be a liberal arts graduate.

According to NACE, salaries for political science and psychology majors grew by 8 percent over the past year. And growing numbers of retirees in teaching, the trades, and government agencies mean plenty of job opportunities should emerge in those fields.

Jeni Elson - who is graduating with a degree, and a credential in elementary education, from Boise State University - says she has no worries about finding a job, even though she's postponing her entry into the workplace by doing post-graduate study at a Bible college in California. She knows there's a teacher shortage, and will be for years to come.

"I'm not planning on getting a job for a couple of years," she says. "But I feel that I'm in a good field for job opportunities."

In fact, experts say that in both the short and long run, the job outlook is good for liberal arts graduates who keep up their computer and technology skills.

Increasingly, they say, employers will need workers who know not just how to use information technology - but what to do with what they learn from it.

"This is a knowledge-based economy," says Mr. Gardner of Michigan State. "It's going to continue shifting out of the processing of information to people who can use that information to produce goods and services.

"It's going to take people who can think across disciplines and put data together in different ways," he adds. "They'll need to be not only good problem solvers, but also critical thinkers.

"That's the intent of a good liberal arts education," Gardner says, "and that's why those people are going to become more valuable."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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