THIS year's college seniors face the toughest job market since the early 1980s. ``It's competitive,'' says Ruth Boykin, associate career services director at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Urban and Public Affairs. ``Traditionally, you got your r'esum'e out there and you would probably hear from someone. Now, you send your r'esum'e out and it's a given that you have to contact them within seven to 10 days.''
``Things are a bit tighter,'' says Mark Ballard, director of arts and sciences career planning at Ohio State University. On-campus visits there by company recruiters are down 15 to 20 percent from normal. But 21.8 percent of this year's winter quarter graduates had accepted jobs or had offers pending - down only slightly from two years ago.
Ohio State is the nation's largest university. An informal Monitor survey of major universities suggests that this year's college graduates will have to work harder and wait longer to land their first job.
How bad the situation is depends on whom one talks to.
``This is the most difficult job market that graduates have faced since World War II,'' says Patrick Scheetz, director of the well-regarded Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.
In a survey released in December, Dr. Scheetz found that major corporations expected to hire 23.1 percent fewer graduates this year than two years ago. This two-year drop tops the survey's 20-year record of 16.8 percent, notched in the 1982-83 academic year.
But job counselors at other universities are more upbeat.
``We are on our way back,'' says David Bechtel, career services director at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Employers cut back their on-campus interviews this year, but now are calling back to look at more students, he adds.
The job outlook varies by region. Schools in the Midwest and South report better job prospects than those in New England. ``I would say we probably have a little further down to go,'' says Carol Lyons, dean of career and development placement at Boston's Northeastern University.
The outlook also varies by field. Engineers continue to find jobs more easily than liberal-arts majors. Georgia Tech, where 70 percent of the graduating class are engineers, saw its busiest fall recruiting season in memory.
Hiring for nurses is also strong. Nursing students ``didn't even have to prepare a r'esum'e. It was that good,'' says Maurice Mayberry, director of the career resources center at the University of Florida. He expects that 30 percent of the university's seniors won't have found jobs by graduation - up from 25 percent normally. Another 25 percent will go on to graduate school, compared to 20 percent normally.
The slowdown in hiring is not limited to the United States.
A survey by the Toronto Star last month found that job listings at Ontario universities had dropped slightly from a year earlier.
British government statistics show a drop of 25 percent in job listings and a 16 percent drop in the number of employers doing college recruiting this year.
The problem, of course, is the economy. As business conditions have weakened in the US and elsewhere, companies have grown more tentative about hiring.
According to a survey of more than 15,000 companies, hiring plans in the US are as dismal as the record set in the 1982 recession. ``I hope it's the bottom, but there's no way of knowing until it has turned up,'' says Mitchell Fromstein, president of Manpower Inc., which released the survey last month. The survey found 18 percent of the firms expected to increase hiring in the second quarter; 13 percent expected to cut staff.
The second quarter is traditionally a strong hiring season. When adjusted for that seasonal variation, the survey showed a drop in hiring strength for the second quarter - its ninth straight quarterly decline.
Several job counselors report that students are panicking about finding a job or so discouraged that they're not even looking. That's an overreaction, the counselors say, because students in previous recessions fared pretty well. ``It's not that students didn't get jobs,'' says Mr. Bechtel of the University of Illinois. ``It's just that students took a little bit longer to get jobs.''