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For Most Graduates, Grueling Job Hunt Awaits
Read: 3236 Publish: 2012/5/22 15:18:14

Graduating college students face a mixed job market at best this year, and most will leave school without an offer in hand, despite an uptick in hiring by on-campus recruiters.

A survey of employers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed those that recruit on campuses plan to boost hiring of new grads by 10.2% from last year. However, on-campus recruiting is only a small slice of the pie -- the bulk of graduates find jobs on their own.

In a study to be released Thursday, the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University found that recent graduates are taking awhile to find work. Only 49% of graduates from the classes of 2009 to 2011 had found a full-time job within a year of finishing school, compared with 73% for students who graduated in the three years prior.

Overall, the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds with bachelor's degrees was 6.4% in April, compared with 8.1% for the overall population, according to the Labor Department.

Experts say four broad issues will make it tougher for today's graduates to launch their careers and succeed over the long run.

FIRST, the job market is still far from booming: March and April's disappointing job numbers -- employers added only 154,000 and 115,000 jobs, respectively, compared with an average gain of about 250,000 in the previous three months -- suggest the recovery remains fragile. The downbeat news echoes a pattern in the past two years, when much-heralded economic 'green shoots' early in the year failed to blossom into sustained improvement.

On the positive side, Americans are quitting their jobs in higher numbers, leaving behind openings for which new graduates can apply. In February, the last month for which data are available, two million people gave notice, according to the Labor Department. While still historically low, it is the highest number of resignations since November 2008. That churn -- the natural turnover that occurs as workers quit or retire -- is a sign of slowly improving economic confidence and good news for new grads and all unemployed people.

SECOND, the class of 2012 faces tougher competition thanks to what Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center, calls 'the recession hangover.' Young adults who graduated into the dire labor market of 2008 and 2009 and have been out of work or underemployed since are applying for the same jobs as new grads are. The same goes for earlier grads who were laid off during the recession. Those job candidates, many of whom likely have more experience than new grads, may have an edge, Mr. Van Horn says.

In a better position might be those seniors who took advantage of on-campus recruitment programs. Lauren Martinez, 22 years old, will graduate from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., on Saturday with an entry-level consulting job in hand. Competition during recruiting season felt 'hard but not terrible,' says Ms. Martinez, who received two job offers. Her friends who are graduating without full-time jobs, she adds, have mostly lined up volunteer work, internships and temporary research positions while they continue to search for permanent work.

THIRD, a debt burden looms. Two-thirds of students from the class of 2010, the latest figures available, graduated with student loans, with an average tab of $25,250 -- up 5% from the previous year -- according to The Institute for College Access & Success, an independent group that promotes higher education affordability.

Tuition isn't getting any cheaper, so loan figures are expected to be even higher for the current crop of graduates. That means a greater share of any starting salaries they receive would go to repaying lenders, rather than to rent, furnishings or a down-payment fund for a house, delaying financial independence for many young adults.

LAST, even when new graduates do find jobs, their starting salaries tend to be lower than those for their counterparts who graduated a decade earlier, adjusted for inflation. With a lower base pay, research shows they may never catch up.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, entry-level, college-educated men age 23-29 earned an average $21.68 an hour in 2011, an inflation-adjust drop of 7.6% from 2000. For women, the corresponding figure fell 6%, to $18.80. Men and women both earn just a bit more than they did in 1989, when measured in 2011 dollars.

Many students nonetheless express optimism, though perhaps that is simply the Lake Wobegon effect: They might believe they're all above-average after years of positive reinforcement from their parents. In the same vein, they may see themselves as exceptions to the rules of the job market.

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