The job market outlook

After watching the class of 2009 struggle through one of the worst job markets in history, this year’s college graduates now find themselves in a similar boat.

While 2010 graduates are seeing their job prospects slightly improve compared with last year’s class, there’s still much more that needs to be done.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers spring job outlook survey found employers plan to increase college hiring by about 5 percent this year over 2009, when job offers were down 20 percent from 2008 levels. Average starting salaries are down almost 2 percent.

“It certainly hasn’t been a great year,” said Tim Stiles, associate director of University Career Services at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for college graduates under the age of 25 has doubled to around 8 percent since the recession began. That’s high for college graduates, who normally have a lower unemployment rate than those without bachelor’s degrees.

“It’s very confusing for these students,” Stiles said, referring to the disappointing job market that few graduates imagined when they entered college.

For instance, many of this year’s graduates probably did not expect to be moving back in with mom and dad after graduation, but that’s exactly what they’re doing, in increasingly higher numbers.

A CollegeGrad.com survey of last year's graduates found that 80 percent moved back home after getting their diplomas, compared to 63 percent in 2006. Seven in 10 said they planned to stay at home until they found a job.

Stiles said he sees that trend continuing for the class of 2010.

“It’s a safety net for these graduates, and a lot of parents are very open to having them return,” he said.

Marva Gumbs Jennings, Executive Director at the George Washington University Career Center, says a lot of graduates are making the best of a less-than-ideal situation by moving back home, continuing in jobs they held as students, working part-time, or doing volunteer work as they wait for more desirable opportunities.

Just like last year’s graduates, 2010 grads are increasingly drawn to what Jennings calls “post-college programs” such as AmeriCorps and Teach for America, which received a record 46,000 applications this year.

Faced with fewer options, graduates are learning to be flexible.

David Zilber, who recently graduated from Duke University, applied for several internships and research grants, unsuccessfully, before opting for self-employment. He started an engineering project he said he hopes will pay off toward the end of the summer.

“If all goes well, I can sell my work and make a profit,” Zilber said. “If it doesn’t, it’ll be a whole lot of effort for nothing. I’ll have to find a real job.”

A growing number of graduates are leaving the country in search of opportunities.

Jennings said there has been a significant increase in the number of students volunteering or working abroad through programs such as the Peace Corps and Cross-Cultural Solutions.

Alex McCullough, a 2009 graduate of Northeastern University, moved to Thailand shortly after graduating to teach English.

After working abroad for almost a year, McCullough is ready to come home and start looking for a job in the U.S., but he said he’s not exactly thrilled about his prospects.

“I want to get a good job, something that I’ll like, but I’ll probably just have to settle for whatever I can find,” McCullough said.

McCullough said he figured the job market to be in better shape than it is at this point.

University careers counselors have been working to bridge the gap between students’ expectations and the harsh reality of the job market.

“I love idealism, but you have to be realistic,” Jennings said. “You do not come out of college, earn $100,000 and have a title right away, especially in this environment. We all work our way up.”

A lot of recent graduates are still struggling to understand that a college degree doesn’t automatically translate to a job offer.

“Our generation expected to go to college and then get a job right away, but that’s not what happened,” Zilber said.

The most common advice for recent graduates is to be persistent, do a lot of research and, above all, network.

“Particularly in D.C., interpersonal relationships are what count and what get results,” Jennings said.

For young grads looking for opportunities, D.C. is the place to be.

According to an Employment Index compiled by CareerCast.com and JobSerf, two job search companies, Washington, D.C., has led all cities with the most job openings per capita for the last 11 months and ranks first on their list of top 10 best cities for jobs.

“This area hasn’t taken a hit like other areas of the country have,” Jennings said. We’ve had some insulation in terms of the declining labor market, and I think young people see that.”