Tough times in job market

Many college seniors must consider a Plan B

Some aren't bothering to look

More laid-off workers add to the competition

April 27, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Graduating college seniors are facing one of the toughest job markets in years.

With the slumping economy and about 1.3 million students expected to graduate in the next few weeks, many are still wondering where their first paycheck will come from.

Some are opting for part-time jobs or internships to get their foot in the door at companies. Others, including many in Maryland, are signing up with temporary job agencies to ensure some income while they wait for full-time employment.

With student loans to repay - at the University of Maryland, College Park, the average student-loan debt is $15,566 - graduating seniors need to generate income fast.

Some graduates aren't even bothering to hunt for jobs. Instead, they are electing to remain in school. At College Park, graduate school applications are up 22.5 percent over last year, compared with a 4.7 percent increase the previous year, said Christopher Irwin, public relations coordinator for the university's Career Center.

For those seeking employment, times aren't good.

"It is tough out there right now, that's for sure," said John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago outplacement firm. "It may be the toughest year for grads in the last decade."

Challenger said new college graduates are competing against recent graduates who are still searching for entry-level positions or have been laid off, especially from dot-coms and small companies. And more experienced workers who have lost jobs also are in the market.

Nationally, the unemployment rate held steady at 5.8 percent in March, and economic forecasters predict it might climb.

"What is happening now that's a little bit different than previous times when unemployment was up is people are out of work for longer periods of time," said Jennifer Schramm, manager of workplace trends and forecasting for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. "Some people said hiring would pick up right after the war came to an end. ... We've seen different sectors that are relatively timid about hiring. Now, it doesn't appear to be particularly good."

Overall, the economy has been shedding jobs, not creating them.

"We've lost 465,000 jobs in the last two months across the country, at a time when most thought that was going to start to drop," Challenger said. "Companies right now, because they're so thinly staffed, are putting a higher premium on experience. They want people who can come in and hit the ground running, and someone coming out of college, by definition, can't do that. I think it's doubly tough this year for graduates."

Schramm said jobs in the service sector, including health, business and social services, as well as engineering and management, are the hottest ones right now. Challenger agreed, saying there seems to be a big need for nurses, home health care aides and other health-related positions.

Some drugstore chains are paying an average starting salary of $79,000 for pharmacists and pharmaceutical sales representatives, he said. Nurses' salaries average about $38,000, and physical therapists can earn an average of $58,300, Challenger said.

In other fields, accountants average about $40,000 in starting salaries, and investigators, who aren't required to have degrees, can earn as much as $50,000, he said.

Yet, starting salaries don't matter that much for those who can't get hired.

Curtis J. Allen, 22, a computer science major at Coppin State College who expects to graduate May 18, has been sending out his resume since January. He has been turned down for a $54,000 position at Ford Motor Co. and is waiting to hear from the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, where he interviewed two weeks ago and would earn $43,000 initially.

"I'm primarily interested in networking or computer programming," said Allen, an honors student from Detroit, who hopes to obtain a job paying at least $40,000 a year.

Allen plans on spending the two weeks between the end of finals and graduation researching companies online.

"I'm a little concerned," Allen said. "But I wouldn't say nervous."

At least, Allen has a fallback plan - returning home and working at DaimlerChrysler, where he was an intern after his freshman and sophomore years.

Linda W. Bowie, director of Coppin's Career Development and Co-Op Center, said graduating students need to be realistic.

"It is a tough time for students to have to graduate and go out and job-hunt," Bowie said. "But I tell them it's not impossible. They may not get that initial salary offer they want, but maybe an opportunity to get skills they want."

Bowie said she also advises students to consider going to graduate school, particularly if their employers offer tuition reimbursement.

"We tell them to look for some of those other benefits outside of the salary," she said. "We let them know it is tough."

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