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Rush weeks

College-graduation season unleashes a new wave of job-seekers. This year, many will converge on a low number of positions.

By Dave DonelsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2003

The latest crop of college grads will soon take final exams, but the toughest test they may face this year is finding a job.

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"Right now, I know the economy's pretty tough, and I just want to get a foot in the door somewhere," says Justin Smith, a Columbia University student from San Francisco.

"My friends are pessimistic," he said at a recent job fair at Columbia's New York campus, "but they're trying to make do. A couple of them have actually had some good offers. They're not in the jobs they want to be [in], but they're employed and they're getting started."

The outlook is dim, says Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). "Given the economic environment, spring recruiting has really slowed down. About 62 percent of our schools tell us they expect fewer employers on campus this spring than last year."

That will translate to nearly 4 percent fewer job offers for spring graduates, according to the NACE survey of more than 300 employers, firms responsible for hiring some 24,000 grads last year. "This has implications whether you're talking about salaries, signing bonuses, or job-search strategies for students," says Ms. Mackes.

There are wide regional differences in the employment picture, with NACE surveys mirroring regional unemployment data. Employers in the Midwest plan to increase by 11.2 percent.

But employers it polled in the Northeast expect to hire 8.1 percent fewer new graduates, those in the South 1.5 percent fewer, and the West 15.7 percent fewer.

As James Lewellis, a Columbia graduate student in international finance, from Whitehall, Pa., puts it, "It's an atmosphere where everyone has to step up their game and play it a lot smarter and more focused."

Competition for slots in the workforce promises to be fierce. As of the end of March, nearly 8.5 million Americans were looking for work, 221,000 more than at the same time last year.

The number of nonfarm jobs fell by 108,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as employers put hiring on hold along with capital investment, marketing, and other growth expenditures. This is the third straight monthly decline in the number of jobs, which has fallen in 11 of the past 12 months.

Another indicator: the number of people who want to work, but have given up looking for employment because they believe no jobs are available. The BLS reported 474,000 of these "discouraged" workers in March, up from 330,000 a year ago.

Katherine Bromberg, a political- science major from Chevy Chase, Md., is experiencing the drought firsthand.

"I have a huge list of applications pending," she says. "So far, I haven't heard back from many people. No one says much more than 'We're looking at your résumé.' "

The problem isn't just the number of available jobs, according to human- resources consultant Greg Chartier, it's also the expectations gap. Mr. Chartier is also an adviser on the West- chester/Putnam (N.Y.) Counties Workforce Investment Board, a job-training and -creation program.

"There clearly are too many kids who started school thinking that today was going to be like it was four years ago. They went to school, for example, to become Web designers, but today there aren't any jobs for Web designers," he says.

Ramesh Gaonkar, professor of computer and electrical engineering technology at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y., says the high-tech sector may be one of the most difficult to break into at the moment. "Everything is on hold," he says.

Computer-science majors are looking at a 7 percent decrease in salary offers from last year, according to the latest NACE salary survey.

The expectation gap extends beyond the information-technology field. Many other careers that were "hot" when students started college four years ago have cooled considerably. Indeed, the swiftness of the economy's fall in the past few years took many students by surprise. (See story.)

"When I got my undergraduate degree in '98, even mediocre students got three or four job offers," says Mr. Lewellis, who completes his master's degree this year. "Now, even at Columbia, there are very few people landing jobs in the financial industry."

Just about the only part of the financial, insurance, and real estate sector with a positive job story nationwide is interest-rate-driven mortgage banking, where there were 69,000 more jobs in March this year than last. Commercial banking, insurance, and real estate employment are all essentially flat, while the security and commodities brokerages have eliminated more than 80,000 jobs since April 2001.

Transportation, communications, retailing, construction, and manufacturing all show substantial job losses in the latest BLS tally. Ruth Darvie, director of human resources at civil engineering firm Ammann & Whitney, says her firm isn't hiring, though it is preparing for a time when it will.