College grads face tougher job market

Entry-level pay rises, but offers are less plentiful.

Tom A. Peter
Meet 'n' greet: Boston College's students mingled with recruiters at its career night April 16.
Scott Wallace

Unlike most of the underclassmen who've come to Science Career Night at Boston College dressed in jeans, some even in backward baseball caps, Timothy Harrington arrived better dressed than some of the recruiters. As a graduating senior, Mr. Harrington is only months away from the real world. Now all he needs is a full-time job to match his snappy suit.

Unfortunately, finding one has proven more difficult than expected.

All of his friends who graduated last year found work and "none of them have had to go through the same amount of grief that I have," says Harrington, a biology major who hopes to go into sales. "The closest I can get to [employers] is usually through their website, and then all you do is plug your résumé into a database and I don't even know how they look at those."

Harrington is one of 1.5 million college grads expected to have a harder time landing a job this year as the United States slides deeper into recession. Although the job market continues to expand, its growth rate has slowed to the lowest in five years as employers gauge how the economy will take shape in the months ahead. If current trends persist, some workplace experts say, college graduates will continue to face an increasingly shrinking job market.

"Between what's going on in the housing market, and with the gas prices, and everything increasing, I think [companies] are just being a lot more cautious … because they're not sure what's going to happen," says Andrea Koncz, an employment information manager at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). "It's just starting to hit the college market," adds Mrs. Koncz, who believes the outlook for next year may be even worse.

While the number of jobs available for college graduates this year increased by 8 percent and average salary offers rose by 5.3 percent, the signs of contraction are clear, reports NACE. The class of 2007 saw a 17.4 percent increase in job openings – one of the best markets since the late 1990s. This fall it appeared that the situation would remain relatively similar for the class of 2008, with a projected 16 percent increase. But by early spring that number had dropped by half.

Unlike previous dry spells in which every industry tightened their belt, this year's slowdown appears focused on the industries hit hardest by the nation's economic woes: finance and construction. New positions in those fields decreased by 7.5 percent and 2.8 percent respectively, NACE reports. Meanwhile other sectors continue to flourish. Entry-level positions in the utility industry saw a 49.3 percent increase while jobs for grads in the government sector rose 32.5 percent.

"There's definitely still some positive news for recent college graduates," says Tanya Flynn, a career adviser at, a Chicago-based website that connects applicants with employers. "I think they just need to put in a little more effort communicating with employers."

Application tactics that may have worked last year, when 79 percent of employers were hiring, could leave graduates living in their parents' basement this year. With only 60 percent of companies looking for new employees, according to a survey, the battle for jobs will be fierce.

"A lot of employers are now investing in employment branding and activities that help them market opportunities to candidates, so that they're getting the best candidates in the door," says Mrs. Flynn. Consequently, employers expect applicants to make a similar investment with job-specific cover letters and résumés at the very least.

Gone are the days when blanketing 20 different firms with a generic cover letter and résumé might have resulted in an interview, says Flynn. In the current economic climate, companies are taking extra care to ensure that they're bringing aboard qualified people whose talents and goals support their organization.

Martin Yate, a job transition coach for executives, says that in just the past six months finding work has become more difficult even for the top of the workforce – something likely to have a trickle-down effect on college graduates.

"It's a much different world for the graduate entering the world of work today," says Mr. Yate, who is also the author of "Knock 'em Dead 2008: The Ultimate Job Search Guide." What's taking place in the workforce and application process represent systemic changes, he says. To succeed, today's workers must be highly mobile, deal with the increased outsourcing of jobs, and please employers demanding more specialized skill sets.

As a result, graduates are only experiencing the tip of what will continue to become an increasingly competitive workforce over the course of their lifetime, says Yate. "Those who don't connect the dots are going to be working at paper-hat-and-name-tag jobs."

Regardless of grim predictions, Amy Donegan, associate director of the Boston College Career Center says that it's important for graduates to keep things in perspective.

"There's still a very strong demand for highly educated, entry-level workers," says Mrs. Donegan. "Students know the job market is tough, but the job market's always tough for an entry-level grad with no experience. They have to be able to learn the skill of job-searching and networking, and that's a ramp up for many of them."

In spite of the tighter market, most students are likely to find a job but it might not be their first choice. Take the 70 percent of graduating seniors who already have an offer, but are either still looking or have yet to accept, reports NACE.

Senior biochemistry major Kyle Crowell says that most of his friends at Boston College and from his home in Gilford, N.H., have yet to find a job. During an interview with a major pharmaceutical company in Boston, the interviewer told him that last year the company had offered at least 14 positions, but this year it was only offering three.

"I'm a little bit apprehensive that I have to go through all of this because it's kind of new, but I'm not worried," says Mr. Crowell. "It may take a little longer than it would have [a year ago], but it'll come."

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