As job market shrinks, so do college grads’ grand plans

The best prepared are finding jobs, but others are having to consider internships or living at home.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Students look for job opportunities at the nonprofit job fair at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.

Call it “A Tale of Two Seniors.”

For Alesandra LaPointe, who has prepared for life after college by doing two internships and frequenting the career center as though it were Starbucks, it is the best of times. She has a job lined up.

For Chris Moberg, who started his job search in earnest only three months ago, it is the worst of times. He doesn’t have a single job interview scheduled.

After years of plenty, the job market is shrinking. Hiring of new college graduates is expected to drop 22 percent this spring, according to one survey. The most prepared graduates are finding jobs, but others are rethinking plans dreamed up during the good times – considering bunking with Mom and Dad or an internship instead of a job.

“There are opportunities out there, but they’re going to go to the young people who are focused,... [who] know what they bring to the table ... and use their connections wisely,” says Philip Gardner, director of Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute.

Firms trim hiring

Small companies that had expected to keep growing are having trouble getting credit, he says. Companies that had planned on a wave of baby boomer retirements are seeing those employees stick around much longer.

Even large companies that are typically on the lookout for new grads are pulling back this year. At the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, a number of students who thought they had their jobs all lined up found out shortly before their December graduation that companies such as Caterpillar were rescinding offers. Because some large companies make offers a semester or more in advance, “the way the economy took a turn, unfortunately it caught them off guard,” says Diana Trendt, interim director of UW’s career center. Some of the graduates have since found other jobs, she says.

Students elsewhere are also considering new options. A career fair for nonprofit and public-service companies hosted by Wellesley College near Boston attracted 420 students – about 100 more than last year.

“Maybe students feel more of a sense of permission to pursue [these sorts of jobs] now than when there were lots and lots of highly paid finance jobs that were pretty tempting,” says Joanne Murray, director of Wellesley’s Center for Work & Service. She also sees more soon-to-be graduates eyeing opportunities to spend time abroad, working or volunteering.

Not just for new grads

Career centers are also expecting more alumni to come back for job-search help. “They came of age ... with a different set of expectations, and they’ve been caught short,” Ms. Murray says.

Adam Brierley earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in December from the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, and he’s come to the nonprofit fair in search of a job or even an unpaid internship. “It’s very hard without much work experience,” he says, noting that while he was working to pay for college he didn’t have time for internships. Now he’s living with his parents and says he’ll just “roll with the punches.”

Students nationwide are being urged to ratchet down expectations. The average starting salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree is expected to be $49,353 this year, up just $53 from last year, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Traditional entry-level jobs are few.

“The six-month internship is the new first job,” says William Hiss, a vice president who oversees the career center at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. “Companies are being cautious, and a six-month internship is a perfectly reasonable way to think about ... ‘Do we really need this person?’ ”

Hope for engineers, accountants

New graduates with such majors as engineering, accounting, computer science, and business are relatively in demand, though they’re likely to have fewer job offers to choose from this year, says Mimi Collins, spokeswoman for NACE, which forecast the 22 percent drop in jobs for new graduates based on a February survey. One sector where job opportunities are up is the government.

Companies want to be poised to hire when the economy improves. But “my worry is that this will just skip over the class of 2009,” says Kelley Bishop, executive director of career services at Michigan State in East Lansing. “How do you keep those folks in the front of the line when the opportunities open up again?”

Ms. LaPointe, a senior at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., put herself at the front of the line by having a plan. The two internships and frequent trips to the career center led to two job offers. Just after Christmas, she accepted one: a two-year financial leadership program with The Nielsen Company.

“My hard work over the four years has really paid off,” says the anthropology major and accounting minor.

Contrast that with Mr. Moberg, also a senior at Holy Cross. He describes his feelings at not yet having a single lead as “uneasy, nervous.” A philosophy major, he spent a semester in Washington and hopes to find a policy or research job. He ramped up his search after Thanksgiving, sending out applications and networking with everyone he can think of.

He and his girlfriend originally hoped to find jobs in the same city, but now location has to take a back seat. “There’s going to be a point where ... maybe I’m just going to have to do something else. Is it a low-paying job? Is it really sucking it up and living with my family in California rather than being on the East Coast?... Who knows?’ ”

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