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Caps, gowns and a reality check

The recession has been jarring to the college class of 2009, but also may serve as a valuable wake-up call to a generation that grew up in an era of relative prosperity.

Until last October, Cristina Bernardi wasn’t too worried about what she might do after she graduated from Boston’s Northeastern University.

After all, she had done two six-month internships with MTV and had been told that interns were often hired after graduation. Then the economy tanked, that potential job dried up and Bernardi’s frantic efforts to apply for other television production jobs resulted in only one interview, for a receptionist position.

Now, Bernardi finds herself living with her parents and working three part-time jobs, including one at the family masonry supply business. It’s not the life the 22-year-old envisioned when she left for college, but it's a reality that many graduating seniors are facing this spring.

“We went from the hottest job market for graduating seniors in 2008 to the most competitive and coldest job market by Jan. 1, 2009,” said Lee Svete, director of Notre Dame’s career center. “It was like you turned off the spigot.”

When the class of 2009 entered college in 2005, the economy was in good shape and there seemed to be little doubt that most students would end their college years with offers to work in the field of their choice.

Four years later, with the economy mired in recession and the unemployment rate at its highest level in decades, many new graduates are finding their job searches are longer and more difficult than they would have imagined. The jobs may come with a lower salary or offer less flexibility than they expected, be farther away from family and friends or even be in a different field than they hoped to go into.

And those are the lucky ones. Some are collecting their diplomas without a job at all.

Job offers, salaries down
The National Association of Colleges and Employers said employers expect to hire 22 percent fewer new graduates from the class of 2009 than they hired from the class of 2008. For those who do snag an employer’s interest, the organization said the average starting salary offer is down 2.2 percent, to $48,515, from the average salary offer in the spring of 2008.

Caroline Payne had her rude awakening earlier in the school year, when the senior at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., began looking for an unpaid internship and found that many would-be employers weren’t even willing to look at her resume.

“I was like, ‘Ugh, you won’t even let me work for free?’” said Payne, who is earning a degree in health studies and hopes to be a dietitian.

Payne, 22, was eventually able to get an unpaid internship, helping out with a weight-loss program for kids, but she hasn’t had as much luck finding a paying job for when she graduates later this month. Instead, she’s planning to go back to teaching swim classes and working as a lifeguard, a job she’s been doing since she was 16. She’s also moving back in with her parents, something she never expected to do.

“If you had asked me four years ago, I would have said, ‘Nope, as soon as I graduate (I’m going to) go out on my own,'” she said. “But now, there’s no way. It’s not even in the realm of possibilities.”

Career center directors say the swift change has been jarring but also may serve as a valuable wake-up call to a generation that grew up in an era of relative prosperity.

Those who once may have balked at such things as an unpaid internship, a lower-than-expected salary offer or no signing bonus are increasingly happy to just have a job.

“Tides have turned,” Svete said.

The newly minted graduates also are learning it may take a while to get their ideal job.

“I think the recognition that you’re not going to start in a profession at the top, that you’ve got to get into an industry and work up, is resonating more than in past years,” said Matt Berndt, director of career services for the College of Communications at the University of Texas at Austin.

It’s been tough for some students to accept that things have changed so drastically. Kathy Sims, director of the career center at the University of California, Los Angeles, said some students have given up on their job search or have engaged in frowned-upon behavior such as accepting one job but continuing to court other employers.

On the other hand, Sims said, it’s also prompted other students to consider jobs they might not have thought of previously, such as volunteering with the Peace Corps or taking a job teaching English in a foreign country. In the end, Sims said, those jobs could provide valuable skills that will help them land a better job once the recession is over.

Trudy Steinfeld, executive director of New York University’s career development center, said the recession also is giving students breathing room to try new things, such as learning to play the guitar or volunteering for a nonprofit, and only looking at a job as a way to pay the bills. In a better economy, those graduates may have suffered by not immediately taking a more career-oriented position, she said.

“Nobody’s going to bat an eyelash and say, ‘Well that wasn’t smart for your career.’ They’re going to say, ‘You did what you had to do to survive,’” Steinfeld said.

For Bernardi, the Northeastern graduate, there have been upsides to the unexpected change in plans, including that she’s been able to spend more time with her new niece, who was born in January.

She’s also now considering a career in photography, after starting a part-time job taking portraits of sports teams, and another part-time job as a substitute teacher has left her wondering whether she should pursue a teaching certificate.

Still, Bernardi admits she was extremely bitter before getting those jobs.

“I was the only grandchild out of my dad’s family that went to school, and I felt like I did the right thing and kept going with my education, and now I’m the only one that doesn’t have a job,” she said. “It was just a reality check.”

Economists say the repercussions of starting out your career in a deep recession can be significant. A lower starting salary can have a ripple effect for years, since that is the base from which future raises and bonuses are doled out. Starting out at a lower-level job also can mean that it takes longer to work one’s way up the corporate ladder.

Bigger woes for class of 2010?
With the country’s economic recovery expected to be slow, some career counselors say things could be even harder for the class of 2010. Svete, at Notre Dame, said that class already has suffered from a big drop in internship offers, which could make it harder to enter the job market next year.

Still, there are some hopeful signs. Lately, Svete said he’s started hearing from a few more employers, although some are shy about posting jobs because of the huge response they might get.

Steinfeld, at NYU, also said she’s started hearing from more employers in the past few weeks, including even some financial institutions. While those companies are hiring fewer new graduates than in the past, she said some see the benefits to bringing in younger employees, who may be cheaper and more flexible.

And even in the weak economy, some grads in certain fields, such as engineering, are finding that it’s not all doom and gloom.

When Logan Versele graduated from DeVry University in Columbus, Ohio, last fall with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, he said he was able to choose from two job offers. Versele, 30, took a job in medical imaging, and he said the recession hasn’t had had too much of an impact on business.

“Even with the bad economy, we’re still busy,” he said.