Rush weeks

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

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

"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.

"We are trying to fill our drawer with résumés," she says. "Projects in our business have been cut back, especially by state governments. But when that changes, we'll need people."

Rasheq Zarif, a mechanical-engineering student from Paramus, N.J., isn't very optimistic. "It's not easy, especially in the engineering field, to get a job today," he says. "A lot of really good companies aren't even accepting interns because they don't have the funding. If they can't even afford interns, that's not a good sign."

Students entering the job market should work hard to meet with anybody who might know anybody in a position to hire, says Patricia Macken, director of student employment at Columbia. "Friends, parents of friends, clergy, former teachers, any opportunity they get to network, they should take advantage of it." (For many students, networking represents a lost art. See story.)

"Networking becomes absolutely essential because so many other people are trying to reach every company that has an opening," says Jennifer Lawrence, assistant dean for career services at Boston University's School of Management. "The person who's going to get to the top of the pile is the one who has taken the time to get to know different folks in the organization, and learn a little bit more about the organization."

Few workplace experts advise choosing a career track based entirely on which sectors appear hot. But many counsel flexibility as students enter the hunt. (See story.) Similar kinds of work - accounting, for example - can be applied to a variety of sectors and transferred. Even internships should not be shunned, experts say, as a way in. Experience counts.

In terms of industries, a few bright spots can be found. The healthcare industry, for one, shows no signs of slowing. Nearly a quarter million healthcare jobs were added between March 2002 and March 2003.

This continues the trend of the past decade, during which employment in the sector has grown by more than 200,000 jobs a year.

"Biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and healthcare are areas that, for a variety of reasons, are stronger," says Mackes. "There isn't anything out there that's really booming."

A recent update by NACE shows the hiring picture dimming further, overall: Nearly one-third of those firms included in the original survey in the fall indicated this winter that they plan further decreases.

"The market," Mackes says, "is weak to fair at best."

Stay flexible, experts counsel

Keep your options open, say the career-building pros. "There are many jobs that are going begging and many people looking for work, but their skills and what employers are looking for don't match," says Greg Chartier, a human-resources consultant.

"We're encouraging students to broaden their interests, to think more about marketing or public relations," says Patricia Macken, director of student employment at New York's Columbia University. "And since the corporate sector is so depressed, they should think about finding these kinds of positions with not-for-profits." They are hiring, she says, and the experience can help during later job searches.

Jennifer Lawrence, assistant dean for career services at Boston University's School of Management, says there are opportunities, at least regionally, in insurance companies, commercial finance, and banking. "We're also seeing retail," she says, "and everyone's hiring in sales."

Government jobs shouldn't be ruled out, either. Although state and local governments are experiencing layoffs, the federal government is a different story, according to NACE Executive Director Marilyn Mackes.

Even though a lot of noise is being made about putting (mostly lower-level) federal jobs out for private- sector bids, "the federal government is actually in a hiring mode, depending on the agencies," says Ms. Mackes. "As a whole, the federal sector is looking at a huge group of current employees retiring within the next five to 10 years."

Ms. Macken agrees. "Governmental agencies are recruiting at the college level to establish relationships with the schools," she says.

Smaller companies, rather than big-name, blue-chip employers, represent a bright spot in the hiring picture, according to Michael Cahill, director of the Syracuse University Center for Career Services. "The good news is that hiring by smaller employers is going up. Some of these companies might be under the radar, but they're expanding their workforce by 3 to 4 percent."

Job-seekers report that smaller companies are less likely to post openings on the Internet, but are often more accessible in person because they have fewer layers of management and bureaucracy.

"Students read and see the bad news about layoffs and employment and translate that into 'I'm not going to get a job.' That's not at all true."

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