Diploma Falls Off As Ticket To A Job

Many Recent Graduates Wait Out Economy By Getting Advanced Degrees

December 14, 2009|By Don Lee | Don Lee , Tribune Newspapers

Washington - - The unemployment rate dropped last month for men and women, blacks and whites, lifting hopes that the long dry spell in the jobs market might be coming to an end. But for recent college graduates and other young adults, the labor situation didn't just remain dire - it got worse.

For 20-to-24-year-olds, the jobless rate went up four-tenths of a percentage point to a whopping 16 percent in November, even as unemployment nationally dipped to 10 percent from 10.2 percent. And unpublished data from the Labor Department show that the unemployment figure for college graduates in that age group was 10.6 percent in the third quarter - the highest since early 1983 and more than double the rate for older college-educated workers.

Kyle Daley, 22, of Walnut Creek, Calif., provides a grim case study. Last June, Daley graduated from UCLA, one of the country's best universities, with a degree in political science. His grade-point average: a solid 3.5 out of 4.

Since January, he has applied for about 600 jobs, mostly entry-level positions such as office assistant, junior analyst and marketing associate. He has reached out to small firms as well as Fortune 500 companies, in aerospace, entertainment, finance and government, from Alabama to Washington state.

The results: two interviews - one in person and another by telephone, neither of which panned out. Compounding the financial bind, Daley doesn't have enough work history to qualify for unemployment benefits. So he lives with his parents and gets around with mass-transit tickets from his mom.

Things will probably get better for Daley, and for classmates he says are having similar problems. After all, job and pay prospects for college graduates are generally stronger than for workers with less education.

But studies also suggest that graduates entering the work force in a recession see negative effects not only in the short-term but for years into the future in terms of pay and career mobility.

Entry-level salaries are usually lower in tough times, and for most workers where they start is one of the biggest factors in how much they're earning a decade later. The slower start can also influence starting a family and consumer spending on everything from cars to houses.

Those effects are likely to be even more pronounced given the severity of the latest recession.

"At this point, it's almost like I can't even start on building a career or a life if I can't get my foot in the door," Daley said.

Kathy Sims, UCLA's Career Center director, says Daley's case is unusually bleak, but she says this past year was the worst job market that she's seen in her 32-year career. Earlier this winter and spring, she says, 40 percent fewer companies came to recruit on campus compared with a year earlier.

Although the recruiting activity looks stronger heading into 2010, neither Sims nor officials at other universities see a robust recovery in hiring of new graduates.

"I think it's going to be marginally, slightly better next year," said Patricia Rose, who runs the University of Pennsylvania's Career Services.

Rose wasn't surprised by Daley's experience. Unlike other recessions, she says, this one hit particularly hard and across the board - even for graduates of programs such as nursing, where demand almost always outstrips supply.

When the economy turned down in the past, she recalls that Penn nurses, for example, had little trouble getting jobs. But this time, Rose says, experienced nurses went back to work or signed up for more hours, some because their spouses had lost jobs - leaving fewer openings for fresh graduates.

Overall, 61 percent of Penn students who graduated in May with a bachelor's degree were employed full-time within six months - down from 68 percent in 2008, Rose said. About 20 percent of the class of 2009 reported going to graduate or professional schools; many of today's college students go on to advanced study, but this recession has intensified the trend as students sought a haven.

Many other colleges and universities haven't yet collected job statistics for their graduates of 2009. And some, including UCLA, either don't track or publicly report placement data. (UCLA's Sims says she doesn't because too few students respond to surveys.)

The National Association of Colleges and Employers won't have employment statistics for 2009 graduates until next year, but it's almost certain to show a further sharp drop from 2008 levels. Six months after graduating in May or June of 2008, an average 67 percent of students had full-time jobs, according to reports from 557 four-year colleges.

And that was a decline from a placement rate of 75 percent for the class of 2007 and 77 percent the year before.

Edwin Koc, the association's research director, says he's had discussions with several dozen colleges in recent weeks, and some of them are seeing placement rates as low as 30 percent for the class of 2009.

"It's going to be a bad year," he said.

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