Economy makes college seniors' job hunt difficult

Sunday, March 16, 2003

The nation's college seniors are finding their toughest job is landing a job.

The sluggish economy has left many such students, who are two months from graduating, discouraged with the job hunt. Brandi Brooks, 21, will graduate in May from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in advertising. She works part time at the university's career services office, which tries to help graduating students find jobs. She's mailed out resumes and posted one online. She's gone to job fairs and searched the Internet and newspaper classifieds almost daily since January.

So far, no bites.

"It's hard to understand why I've gone through all of this work and not found a job," she said of her college education.

Brooks isn't alone -- her peers across the nation are facing the same crisis.

Jerry Westbrook, director of career services at Southeast, said he can't remember two worse consecutive years for landing employment. Westbrook has worked at four colleges, helping students launch their careers since 1969.

He blames the economy and a possible war with Iraq for the trouble graduating students will have finding jobs, and he predicts it may take six months before some of this spring's college graduates find jobs in their chosen professions. That could persuade some college graduates to enter graduate school for better job opportunities in the future.

Hiring downturn

For those staying in the job hunt, it won't be easy. Figures from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which tracks hirings, show manufacturers nationwide plan to hire 6 percent fewer new graduates this year. Service companies expect to hire 2.4 percent fewer graduates. Recruiters from the government and nonprofit sector predict they'll hire the same number of graduates as a year ago, the association said.

But the outlook is brighter in the Midwest than elsewhere. Employers here plan to increase their college hires by 11.2 percent. But hirings are expected to drop by 15.7 percent in the West, 8.1 percent in the Northeast and 1.5 percent in the South, according to association figures.

The economic downturn in high-tech and Internet businesses on the West Coast and trouble in financial markets on the East Coast are largely to blame for decreased hiring in those regions, Westbrook said.

It's a far cry from the late 1990s, when students had their pick of jobs.

Joe Driskill, director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, remembers those glory days but said hirings have been hurt by a nationwide recession that has lingered on since before the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Employers, he said, must cope with a lagging economy and stiff price competition from overseas products. Meanwhile, businesses are investing in new machinery but not new employees.

Technology has allowed companies to improve their production of goods or services without having to hire more people, Driskill said.

But he said college graduates shouldn't get discouraged. The job market will improve, and today's college graduates should be able to find work, although not necessarily their first choice of jobs.

Whatever job they find, Driskill said, college graduates will still do better in the long run than those who don't get a degree. Last year, the average income in Missouri for workers with high school diplomas was $22,000. The average income for workers with bachelor's degrees was $44,000.

Staying in one place

While college students fret, the job situation is ideal for employers.

Kelly Koch, who manages a Walgreens store in Arnold, Mo., and does store recruiting, visited Southeast last week to interview prospective management trainees for 32 stores in eastern Missouri. He interviewed 20 students. Two or three may be offered jobs, he said.

Koch said he can afford to be selective in the tight job market. There are fewer openings because people aren't job hopping like they did in boom times, he said.

With companies limiting or eliminating health benefits for retirees, many of the nation's workers -- ages 55 to 62 -- have elected to keep working, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. That leaves fewer job openings for new graduates, the institute says.

Even with the tough competition for openings, Koch said fewer students at Southeast and other colleges are turning out for job fairs and job interviews.

"Students have almost become apathetic, saying the job market is bad," he said.

Annie Burton knows the feeling. She graduated in 2002 with a business management degree from Southeast but eventually landed a job working in a retail clothing store in Cape Girardeau, where she discovered her college degree was no substitute for experience.

"I was told I needed experience to move up in the company," said Burton, who lives in Cape Girardeau.

She recently became co-manager of a new clothing store in Cape Girardeau, a move she hopes will pay off.

Of course, success in finding a job depends a lot on the field.

"I pretty much have a job lined up," said Southeast senior Tom Long of St. Louis, a criminal justice major. He is scheduled to enroll in the police academy in St. Louis later this year.

"It has pretty good job security because you are always going to have someone out there breaking the law," he said.

But Long said many of his friends aren't so lucky. "A lot of my friends are business majors," he said. "Most of them are having trouble finding jobs."

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