Dear Joyce: I will graduate from college this year as an English major and, like thousands of others, am anxious about what the future holds. Can you write about employment for new college graduates in what I am beginning to see as the "Gray Nineties"? Should I take any job I can get and worry about my career path later? -- L.S.S.
Dear L.S.S.: In 1991, for every 100 campus interviews only 26 candidates were invited back for a second look and a mere 12 received job offers. And last year's soft market was better than this year's employment mush.
The obvious conclusion is that June grads must waste not a minute in signing up for college job-search seminars and joining the job-hunting support groups that meet regularly on campuses.
Even students in such high-demand fields as engineering and computer science whose heads formerly were turned by proposals from several companies are having to work much harder to get jobs. Graduates in many other fields, especially liberal arts, are facing the worst outlook in 10 years.
The big question puzzling the majority of college graduates this year is exactly the one you ask: job first, career second -- or career first, job second? The answer depends on several considerations.
Start with a hardball assessment of your marketability. Who loves you, baby?
If you're an honors graduate in a technical field and gunning for the top, don't consider yourself lucky to be offered just any job, even in a legendary company.
Go for job content plus a boss who's kind enough to teach and tough enough to demand that you turn in champion performances. So what if you feel like a blob of mercury at the end of the day -- you're building your career.
Learning to be the best in a marketable area of knowledge is always more important to your ultimate career success than merely serving time at a name company droning through a stultifying job reporting to a boss who will not invest in your growth.
At the other end of the scale, suppose you have a lackluster 2.5 grade-point average, a liberal arts degree and not a clue about what you want to do. If you can't or won't consult a career counselor for guidance, the gamble changes.
You may indeed be better off allowing your decision to be recession-driven and taking the first halfway acceptable offer that turns up -- receptionist or assistant -- at a small but growing enterprise.
If there's ever an economic time when it is better for some people to focus on job first, career second, this is it.
For middle-of-the road graduates, tilt toward being choosy.
The price of being picky is high: graduate-level research on the job-hunting process and relentless commitment to developing your ability to market yourself.
A few letters still come in from the 1982 recession's graduates who did not learn to market their talents but in desperation became hourly workers. Now, after 10 years, they want to know how to get out of the hole they've dug.
But you say you don't have the money to hold out for the right offer? One answer is to work part-time while you continue your hunt.
Your dilemma defies a universal answer.
Yes, first jobs should not be taken lightly because they often establish a career pattern. But if you find yourself in a career cul-de-sac, when the economy improves you can break free and get back on the right track for you.