WASHINGTON -- When Mareco Edwards started college four years ago, he thought getting a job with a degree in finance would be a breeze.
Now, as he approaches graduation from Howard University in two months and prepares to enter a recession-battered labor market, he is finding jobs are scarce and the competition is not.
"So far, I've interviewed with 25 companies, gotten eight second interviews and zero offers," said Mr. Edwards, a 22-year-old Memphis, Tenn., native.
Mr. Edwards, along with 1 million other U.S. college students graduating this spring, is facing the grim prospect of being unemployed after spending thousands of dollars on a college education.
The hiring of college graduates is projected to be down more than 30 percent in 1992 compared with actual hirings in 1989, according to the most recent annual survey of 259 corporate recruiters compiled by Victor R. Lindquist, the director of placement services at Northwestern University.
"Awful!" is how Mr. Lindquist describes the market. He advises students to "begin their search by purchasing a box of Kleenex because they'll probably be in for a long and arduous search."
"No geographic region or academic discipline has been totally immune from this depressing economic situation," he said.
At the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Sharon L. Baughan, director of career counseling and placement, said corporate visits and job interviews on campus are down about 20 percent.
"We are seeing more students apply to graduate school than in a normal year, and students [who] are avoiding the job market altogether for the moment and will not get involved until it improves," she said.
At Pennsylvania State University, the number of interviews on campus has plummeted more than 22 percent during their fall recruiting season. For a university with one of the largest recruiting programs in the country, that calculates to 3,000 fewer interviews.
"It'll be a very difficult year," said Jack Rayman, the director of career development and placement. "The students' anxiety is up, and the forecast doesn't look too promising."
Many recruiters continue to visit colleges, but in many cases only to keep their name familiar on campuses, placement offices say.
In an informal survey of recruiters done last fall at the American University in Washington, employers said they did not hire graduating students because they were able to hire someone who had been laid off from another job. These experienced workers were often willing to take an entry-level salary.
The most common reason given was that the companies decided to wait and see if the recession was really ending, as had been predicted.
Instead of relying solely on placement centers, college counselors are now recommending that students use unconventional and more aggressive methods.
Word-of-mouth or networking is still one of the best means of finding a job, said Alan Goodman, placement director at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
"Networking allows you to tap into the hidden job market," he said. "When employers don't have the funds to recruit or advertise, they rely on the grapevine."
At Goucher College, a career program beginning later this month will bring graduates back to the campus with first-hand accounts of their experiences in the working world -- on the kinds of jobs that are available, and how they managed to win them.
"Seniors graduating this year probably will face one of the tightest job markets I can remember over the last 15 to 20 years," acknowledged Francis J. LeMire, director of Towson State University's Career Placement Center.
Dr. LeMire said it can be difficult for a student with "a narrow career perspective where they've been looking at one particular field for the last couple of years" to broaden their horizons. But they should consider any job that gets a foot in the door, providing them with experience and a "track record of success."
"That's difficult for someone at the age and that stage of development to comprehend," Dr. LeMire said. "It's not all gloom and despair. If you give up before you start looking, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage. Now is the time to really challenge yourself to be creative, to look into fields of employment that may not be the high-glamour type, where the degree will open doors, and start somewhere and build on it."
Deborah May, director of career planning and placement at the University of Michigan, said students expecting to find their dream jobs overnight may be disappointed.
"We're suggesting they get a buy-time job while they're targeting a job that's a good fit for them," Ms. May said. "They need to be realistic."
Unrealistic expectations are a common mistake of graduating students, according to Mr. Lindquist's survey. Of 259 employers asked, that was the No. 1 weakness of college graduates.
Anxiety can also pose a problem for job searchers, Ms. May said. "They should redirect any nervous energy into their search, stay optimistic, and definitely have a Plan B."
Job search tips
Here's what college placement counselors recommend:
Network -- Let friends and family know you're looking for employment so they can ask their friends about jobs. It's always good to have someone else looking for you while you're looking.
Be focused -- Know your strenghts and weaknesses and be able to articulate them in an interview.
Be thorough and accurate in your preparation -- Follow up your resumes with phone calls. Research companies before going to an interview. Send thank-you notes afterward. Be sure you've spelled names correctly on all correspondence.
Be flexible and realistic -- Consider accepting a job that is closely related to the one you'd like. Also, the search may take longer than you expect -- don't be disappointed if you don't get a job quickly.