Recent College Grads Face Tough Job Market

Decked out in her new interview suit and clutching a leather portfolio filled with resumes, Sara Walters is all confidence as she begins her job search.

After all, she's had internships and good grades, and has been active all through college. She makes it clear that her sights are set only on top firms offering top dollar.

"People talk about the recession, but I'm not worried," said Walters, 22, a marketing major at Northeastern University in Boston. "I know there's still a market for college graduates, and I know there's a job out there for me."

Don't be so sure, career counselors say. With the shutdown of Internet startups and a slowdown in the economy, a glut of people with experience in high-tech industries are competing for available jobs, leaving fewer opportunities for recent graduates.

As a result, recruiters are coming to campus job fairs with fewer jobs, and some colleges are cracking down on students who aren't taking the situation seriously.

"Last year you could have had a degree in low demand, a lousy grade-point average and bad interpersonal skills, and still get a job," said Mimi Collins, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Colleges and Employers. "But that's not the way it is anymore."

'They Should Be Worried'

Few students seem to see any dark clouds on their job-seeking horizon. In fact, career counselors say some are so confident about the prospects of easily landing a job, they aren't even bothering to meet with recruiters.

"They should be worried, but I don't think it's caught up to them yet," said Carol Lyons, dean of career services at Northeastern.

Several of her regular recruiters canceled this year because of hiring freezes and cutbacks, she said, while others pulled out at the last minute because of low student interest.

The same holds true at other schools around the country. In fact, so few students showed up for their interviews at Lehigh University that officials set a new rule this year: skip one interview and you're locked out of the recruiting process for good.

"Until now they knew if they missed an interview, there would be another one coming along," said Donna Goldfeder, director of career services at the Bethlehem, Pa., school. "But they can't rely on us that way anymore."

Career counselors say much of the confidence students are feeling stems from watching their older classmates have no trouble landing jobs last year. In addition, many agree that 21- and 22-year-olds have no idea of what it means to seek work during slow economic times.

"It's easy for these kids to have their heads in the sand because they haven't seen this on campus yet," said Goldfeder. "They're going to have to network themselves now, and do more than just rely on us, but they don't seem to understand that yet."

A Vastly Different Economic Picture

Clarice Wilsey, associate director of University of Oregon career center, agreed students don't seem stressed, but disagreed the poor economy is affecting hiring.

"Companies want people who are bright and upcoming," Wilsey said. "Even if the economy doesn't get any better, those students will still get jobs eventually … What we try to do is keep them hopeful, get them prepared and not let them procrastinate."

A year ago the economy was booming, jobs were plentiful, and graduates were swept up by campus recruiters armed with enough high-paying, entry-level positions for almost everyone. But now the economic picture is vastly different.

Joe MacDonald, a recruiter with the Morgan Co. in Narragansett, R.I., which makes high technology products, students can no longer expect to come into an interview uninformed about the company and still get a job.

"The ones we want are at the top of their class," he said. "If they don't have a 3.9 or 4.0 grade point average, we don't even see them anymore."

Karen Hansen, staffing director at Mentor Graphics, a global electronic design company with offices in Wilsonville, Ore., said her company is growing, but she expects the number of on-campus offers to diminish.

"We've always been picky, and further decline in the economy will probably make us more so." said Hansen, whose company recently recruited at Portland State University.

Michael Brock, assistant director of corporate recruitment at Emory University in Atlanta, said his students have fared better than many at other schools, even though the dot-com shakeout has reduced the number of employers coming to campus.

"Before it blew up, they were hiring warm bodies," he said. "It's still very active, but I don't think it'll ever be like it was. Not being as good as the last five years doesn't mean it's bad."

Not The End Of The World, Some Say

Others agree that anxiety spurred by the current economic uncertainty shouldn't be looked at as the end of the world.

"I was here during the last true recession, in 1991, and this is nothing like that," said Don Brezinski, director of career services at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. "In comparison to what I've seen, this isn't so bad. But compared to the gold rush of last year, there's just no comparison."

Still, students who have been watching the economy turn are feeling the pinch.

Abir Shome, for instance, is frustrated. He's 24, a native of Bombay, India, and a top student at Northeastern. In May he'll get his master's degree in engineering, but he's preparing himself for unemployment.

"I'm starting to wonder why I'm bothering to interview at all," he said. "People are getting laid off up, down, left, right and center."

But career counselors say that for every Shome there are at least two students on campus like Sara Walters, who remain convinced that everything will be fine.

And for some, things have already worked out just fine. Sucharita Kuchibhotla, 21, a Tufts University senior from Bethel, Conn., accepted a job with the investment bank J.P. Morgan Chase in December. Her starting salary: $55,000.

The only problem is most of her friends don't want to talk to her about it, she said.

"The vibe around campus right now is you just don't ask seniors what they're doing next year," she said. "I sort of feel bad sometimes."

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