Roads less traveled

Facing a tough job market – and feeling more introspective – many college grads seek alernatives to the old corporate career path

Last fall, Sanwaree Sethi, now a senior at Amherst College in Massachusetts, was certain she'd go to work for a investment bank or consulting firm after graduating. For Ms. Sethi, a softspoken woman who was born in India and has lived most of her life in

Washington, D.C., corporate recruiting seemed an easy, laid-out course. It was one that other family members had already taken.

Now it looks as if she may be teaching – in Mongolia.

A tight job market contributed to her 180-degree switch. But as discouraging as all the dead-end interviews and unanswered job inquiries had become, Sethi now says the rejections may turn out to be a positive development.

"I don't think I really wanted to go into consulting or i-banking," she says, noting that her sister is unhappy at her banking job. The prospect of moving abroad, however, fills her with excitement. So much so that even if the school where she's applied turns her down, she may still go to Mongolia to look for work. "I don't know where [the idea of Mongolia] came from," she laughs.

Sethi's case may be an extreme example of a shifting job-hunt focus, but the pattern it sets is not too far from the picture now unfolding for many college seniors, career counselors, and employers.

No one doubts that the job market is tight. Nearly one-third of this spring's 1.2 million college graduates may still be looking for work in 2003, estimates Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Employers say they have decreased their entry-level hiring of new college grads by 20 percent, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports. And college career centers say on-campus recruiting is down 20 to 40 percent.

Jobs are still out there, of course. More government jobs can be found. A few fields, such as healthcare and education, are hiring more than ever. And even firms laying off employees tend to take on some college graduates, so as not to bypass a generation of workers.

But as many of the traditional routes close off, experts say, students need to be creative and proactive – and may need to alter their original visions of the position, salary, or even career. Such shifts may be difficult, but career counselors say today's cloudy job climate has a silver lining for college grads.

"I think some of them are looking a bit more creatively than they have in the past," says Donna Harner, co- director of the Duke University Career Center in Durham, N.C. "Sometimes what they're really called to do or are passionate about they don't pursue, because they don't think it's an appropriate choice.... Now, some students are choosing things they might have wanted to do in the first place."

Take Albert Norweb, a senior at Duke. Like Sethi, Mr. Norweb hoped to sign on with a big consulting firm last fall. He landed a number of interviews, he says, but the competition was steep, and he ended the corporate recruiting season last fall without an offer.

Norweb is still looking at the corporate world, with the idea that he'll go to business school in a few years, but now he's focused on smaller, more personal companies whose values are more in line with his own. His first choice: a small streaming-media company that develops educational software.

"If you had asked me a year ago if I would think of this, it would have been, 'Hell, no!' " he says with a laugh. "But I realized this is so much better for me than going into a big corporation. As a banker, I would have been miserable."

Still, the optimism that Norweb and Sethi feel isn't shared by all. Many seniors at a recent nonprofit career fair at Amherst (open to students of five nearby colleges and universities) say they've expanded their search after hitting some walls. Vassilissa Kozoulina, an economics major from New York, says she still hopes to find a job in sports management or marketing, but "I'm open to anything at this point."

Today, Ms. Kozoulina was particularly interested by the AmeriCorps Vista program, which she thinks could give her organizational experience useful in her long-term career path.

"Because of the uncertainty in the job market, AmeriCorps is an option that's being more readily explored," says Michael Hendel, associate director of Carleton College's career center in Northfield, Minn. "We're suggesting it because it is a year that gives students a chance to further clarify their interests, and provides them with experience. The icing on the cake is the education award – $4,700 they can use for student loans or grad school in the future."

Taken as a whole, government jobs, from AmeriCorps to the Secret Service to administrative positions in various agencies, constitute one of the hottest markets this year – primarily because they're available. With 50 percent of the government workforce eligible to retire in the next five years, Washington is actively recruiting. A quick search on the official Web clearinghouse for federal jobs (www.usajobs.opm.gov) revealed more than 1,900 positions posted in the "entry-level professional" category.

Both the Peace Corps and the Immigration and Naturalization Service made the top 10 list of 2002 employers surveyed by Collegegrad.com, a website that connects college seniors with employers. The US Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, and the Secret Service were only slightly further down the list. The Peace Corps alone projects 4,000 entry-level hires this year.

Among those already signed up: Evan Siefert, a senior at Carleton who departs in June to serve as a business adviser in Mauritania.

"My dad was a Peace Corps volunteer and told me about his experience, but it seemed like an extreme option for me," he says. "But after the events of Sept. 11th, I realized that there is a real need for the Peace Corps."

Indeed, a growing sense of patriotism and service, combined with the dearth of other jobs, has led many more college graduates to consider government, nonprofit, teaching, and other service-oriented jobs, experts say. "This is a time for the government to make hay with really good students they wouldn't normally attract," says Alan McNabb, director of the career center at Indiana University in Bloomington.

He's also encouraging students to explore less-glamorous options such as retail or internships – jobs that are easily obtainable, but may provide solid experience down the road. "This [year's job market] is a real stunner to the current generation," he says. "They just don't know what it's all about."

Job-hunt advice: Be prepared, positive, and patient

This year's college grads face a much starker reality than did those in classes two or three years before them. The days of hefty signing bonuses and avid corporate wooing have, for the most part, ended.

Now, say experts, securing a job requires creativity, initiative, preparation, and some energetic networking on the part of students.

Taking advantage of every personal and professional contact available is most important, says John Challenger, CEO of the international outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "So many young people come out and want to forge their own identity as separate from their parents, and yet to not use those personal contacts is giving up something extraordinarily valuable," he says. "All it does is get you in the door – and it's hard to get in the door."

He, like others, insists that everyone has connections, whether they be family, fellow alumni, professors, friends, or members of one's church. What college grads need to do, he says, is list those connections, and then brainstorm their potential for job-seeking help.

Other suggestions, from a variety of sources:

• Don't rely on the Internet. "E-mailing out thousands of résumés is passive, not proactive," says Mr. Challenger. "The world doesn't come to you, you have to go to it."

• Be positive. "People love to naysay," says Rosalind Hoffa, associate dean and director of Amherst College's career center. "But you can't do a job search of any kind when you're feeling that way.... Don't get hung up on 'this job is my life,' " she adds. "This is the time to get wild and crazy" in terms of openness to new routes.

• Think broadly. Your dream job may not be available, but an internship or job in a related field might still provide good experience. Looking at options like night or weekend jobs can also open up more avenues, says Challenger.

• Attend career fairs. Tory Johnson, the CEO of Women for Hire, which sponsors several women-only career fairs for college seniors and young professionals, says the fairs are useful for networking and information as well as for their direct job possibilities. "It's important to approach [a job fair] with both possibilities in mind," she says.

• Be prepared. Showing up at an interview unsure of what the company does won't cut it anymore, says Indiana University career center director Alan McNabb. "Employers are very impatient with people who aren't properly prepared. You'd better know what the company is, what the jobs are, and where you see your strengths playing to that."

• Give it time. People don't always realize that looking for a job can, in itself, be a full-time job, says Ms. Johnson. Dr. McNabb agrees: "Instead of going on spring break this year, [seniors] had better be going up to Chicago and pounding the pavement. If they want a job, they can't be hanging out at the beach."

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