COLLEGE seniors across the United States are facing the ultimate final exam before they graduate this spring: landing a job.
The good news is, that after four dismal years, there are modest signs of improvement. Employers expect to hire 1.1 percent more college graduates this year, according to a survey conducted by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.
Hiring projections are ``up a little, but we have a long road to recovery before we dig ourselves out of this pit we're in,'' says L. Patrick Scheetz, director of the institute.
Job opportunities for new college graduates have decreased 30 percent since 1989, Mr. Scheetz says, noting that this is the longest decline in his survey's 23-year history.
Evidence of the long-awaited turnaround is showing up on campus recruitment schedules. At the University of Texas at Austin, on-campus interviewing has increased more than 10 percent this year, says Barbara Euresti, director of liberal arts career services.
``Although companies are not hiring in the same numbers as they were before the recession, there is still hiring going on,'' Ms. Euresti says.
Some students have learned that it pays to start early in the job-search game.
University of Texas senior Jim Curry registered with the placement office as soon as he returned to school this fall and immediately began attending information meetings with companies interviewing on campus.
``Students are starting to work harder, earlier,'' he says. ``All the sessions I attended were full.''
Mr. Curry's efforts paid off. After interviewing with a number of firms all fall, he was offered his first-choice job in January.
Grad school is alternative
Students who wait until spring to start interviewing may find themselves applying to graduate school rather than braving the job market. Graduate-school applications continue to rise as students buy themselves time and hope the economy improves.
At small and large colleges nationwide, college-placement officials report a trend of increased hiring by small and medium-size companies.
``Two or three years ago, only the Fortune 500 companies would work to establish a relationship with our career-services office,'' says Annie Heidersbach at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. ``But now we're contacted on a regular basis by smaller firms.''
The difficulty, Euresti says, is that these companies don't have the time or resources to publicize their opportunities the way large companies do, and many college seniors focus only on the big firms.
``Students are going down the beaten tracks to the large-name companies and completely bypassing employers that might have large numbers of opportunities,'' Euresti says.
In response to shifting hiring practices, placement offices are developing new strategies. Many colleges now have computer databases with information on all graduating seniors. When a job opening is identified, the database is searched for anyone who fits the qualifications. Then the college forwards resumes to companies and job descriptions to students.
Lee Svete, director of career planning at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., predicts that, in the next decade, both large and small companies will virtually eliminate on-campus interviewing. His office already receives faxes from small companies around the country that will not come to campus but are willing to meet candidates at college fairs.
Not everyone agrees that smaller companies are driving a recovery in college recruitment, however. ``When we look at the total number of hires, I'm not seeing that,'' says Scheetz.
Tom Vaubel, director of career development at Ripon College in Ripon, Wis., is continuing to focus on larger companies.
Take to the road
Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., has taken its students on the road in an effort to improve their job prospects. Trips to nearby Pittsburgh and Erie this spring offer opportunities to network with alumni by shadowing them at work.
Allegheny senior Travis Scala spent a day with the director of the Erie County Library System.
``I got an idea of how tough it is to get into that market,'' he says.
Yet Mr. Scala considers himself a ``social Darwinist'' when it comes to the tight job market.
``It makes the people that really want the jobs work harder to get them,'' he says. ``And the people that don't want them, they just stay unemployed. It's a good separator.''
In fact, more than 20 percent of the people who graduate from college between now and 2005 will not get a college-level job, says Daniel Hecker, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Scheetz advises students who are just beginning to launch their job search to get their ``network cranked up full speed ahead. If your Rolodex is not full of names that you've already contacted, you better start right now,'' he says.