Image: College graduates
Brian Snyder  /  Reuters file
Graduating students wait for the start of Harvard University’s commencement exercises June 4.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 8/21/2009 7:16:48 AM ET 2009-08-21T11:16:48

Matt Dumont has been looking for work since May.

“I’ve had a couple times that I was told that I was one of the top applicants, went in for an interview, and then I just never heard back from them,” said Dumont, who graduated last spring from Abilene Christian University in Texas with a degree in English and minors in Spanish and the Bible.

Dumont was haunting the college’s Career Center last week, looking for leads and advice. But the prospects are not promising for him and thousands of other new college graduates: Employment counselors and job placement specialists say the class of 2009 faces a daunting task finding work in the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Labor statistics for July showed that 15.3 percent of Americans ages 20 to 24 were unemployed, up a tenth of a percentage point from June. That’s compared to the overall jobless rate of 9.4 percent.

Those figures don’t indicate how many were recent college graduates, but surveys by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a professional organization of career counselors at more than 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities, show that the recession has been particularly tough on those entering the job market with a college degree.

More than half of graduates in the class of 2007 had job offers in hand when they finished school, the association said. That figure dropped to one-quarter of 2008 graduates — after the recession began in December 2007 — and for the class of 2009, it was fewer than one-fifth.

Graduates ‘frustrated,’ ‘scared’
Projections for the class of 2010 won’t be final until the fall, but the association said the picture next spring was likely to be even worse.

It’s no surprise, then, that this year’s graduates are “frustrated” and “scared,” said Peter Perkins, director of career services at the State University of New York Institute of Technology in Utica, N.Y.

“They’ve been searching and haven’t found anything and aren’t sure when that’s going to turn around,” he said.

In an annual survey of college seniors released last month by Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, this year’s graduating seniors were markedly more pessimistic about their job prospects than in years past.

Charles Wilf, the Duquesne economist who conducted the research, said only 45 percent of respondents in the national study felt “good or very good” about their chances of getting a job — down by 20 full percentage points from last year’s class.

Public service looks better and better
That’s because top graduates aren’t competing only with the top performers of their own class, said Zeidy Cabrera, employer relations coordinator at California State University at Los Angeles. They’re also battling for fewer available jobs against millions of experienced workers who’ve been laid off.

As a result, more graduates are looking at alternatives to going to work.

“I have a lot of friends who are either moving abroad or trying to find different things, because with the recession, people can’t find jobs,” said Sydney Owens, who graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia in May.

Owens herself took an internship for the summer and then was heading off to Africa — “I’m going to Tanzania to volunteer,” she said.

Volunteering and public service programs are turning out to be popular options, and they’re reporting a significant spike in applications from graduates.

Applications for the Peace Corps were up by 16 percent this spring over last year, the agency reported; likewise, applications for AmeriCorps, the domestic analogue to the Peace Corps, have more than tripled from 2008, it said. Most of the applicants were recent college graduates or college seniors about to graduate.

At Teach for America, which places top graduates in two-year entry-level teaching jobs, 35,000 young people — more than two-thirds of them recent college graduates — applied for roughly 4,000 available positions for the coming school year. For the first time in its 20-year history, it said, the program had to reject prospects who met all of its rigorous criteria.

“The economy probably does have something to do with it,” said Gary Beaulieu, director of career services at Butler University in Indianapolis. “Students are looking for something to do, kind of delaying the entrance into the workforce.”

And while most public service applicants are sincere about wanting to give back to the community, Beaulieu said, it doesn’t hurt that “it looks good on a résumé, as well.”

Some seniors cling to alma mater
Others are postponing their careers in another way, choosing to extend the security of college life until bad times blow over.

In a survey of college students by The Associated Press and the college TV network mtvU, nearly 1 in 5 said in May that they had changed their plans this year and expected to attend graduate or professional school because they feared that an undergraduate degree wouldn’t be enough to secure a job.

Final data aren’t yet available, but the Council of Graduate Schools reported that applications for graduate schools were noticeably up this year, by as much as 20 percent at some institutions.

Meanwhile, Kaplan Inc., which helps students study for graduate school admissions exams, found that 40 percent of students who took the Law School Admissions Test in February said the recession was a factor in their decisions to apply to law school.

“Recessions often inspire people to look to law school to ride out the storm, transition into a new field or broaden their education to make themselves a more attractive candidate,” said Jeff Thomas, the company’s director of pre-law programs.

For top graduates, bitter advice
For those who can’t afford to put off going to work, college career centers are popular places. But Cabrera, the adviser at Cal State-Los Angeles, said there was only so much help counselors could offer.

“All we can do right now is give them hope, give them job leads, give them advice on their résumés,” she said.

Often, that advice isn’t necessarily what students want to hear, said Tom Gimbel, chief executive of the LaSalle Network, a staffing and recruiting firm in Chicago. Even top performers face the prospect of taking jobs far less glamorous than they had envisioned.

“The days of kids coming out of college with liberal arts degrees that want to make $50,000 to $60,000 or even $40,000 to $45,000” are over, Gimbel said.

“You have to start at the bottom,” he said, “We’re kind of back to the ’50s and the ’60s — start in the mailroom and work your way up.”

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