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Graduates' Job Hunts: Majorly Frustrating

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Thomas Rumeau already had a bachelor's degree in economics but decided that a master's in public policy would make him more marketable.

Three months after earning that master's from the University of Maryland at College Park, he still hasn't found a job in his field and is settling for part-time work at the university's career center. Thirty years old and married with a baby on the way, he is working alongside undergraduates nearly 10 years younger.

Since February, he has applied for about 60 positions as a researcher or analyst for the federal government, the state government, nonprofit organizations, private companies, associations -- anyplace he can think of.

"I didn't think it would take this long," Rumeau said. "It's even hard just to get an interview."

Rumeau is a victim of bad timing. During robust economic times, college students in undergraduate and graduate school programs would easily get multiple offers. As the economy teeters on the edge of recession, college graduates this year face a tough job market, leaving many without work in their fields or doing jobs that people without college degrees can do, career center officials said. Most affected, the officials said, are those looking to break into the financial services industry, hard hit by the subprime mortgage crisis.

The numbers aren't pretty. Unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds, the typical post-undergraduate age group, is sharply higher than the overall population. In the second quarter of this year, joblessness among this group reached 9.8 percent, according to the Labor Department. That is up from 7.7 percent last year at this time and 8.1 percent in the second quarter of 2001, about the time the last recession hit. Overall, unemployment rose to 5.7 percent in July from 5.5 percent the previous month, and the economy lost 51,000 payroll jobs.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers said employers offered higher starting salaries this year. That said, the increase in hiring recent college grads, especially in the financial services industry, has dropped considerably. Employers were expected to increase hiring 8 percent for the class of 2008, sharply below the 17.4 percent surge for the class of 2007.

"We're trying to get them thinking about and planning for Plan B and Plan C in the event their first choice is not available," said Jeannette Frett, assistant dean and director of MBA career management at Georgetown University.

The most desirable job candidates, career center officials and recruiters said, are those with engineering, information technology, math and science degrees. The job market in industries such as health care, information technology, accounting and biotechnology remains strong. There are also geographic differences. The Washington area market will always be relatively strong because the federal government and trade associations provide so many opportunities, but other parts of the country are struggling more, career center directors and recruiters said.

Michael Stearns, 30, is hoping his Plan A will still pan out. A recent graduate of Georgetown's MBA program, he has been searching for a management consulting or marketing job since last year. He has applied to about 50 companies in Boston, New York and all over the West Coast.

"The first semester, the economy was still good. Jobs were aplenty. I didn't think there would be problems," he said. "But as soon as 2008 hit, the economy took a big downturn, and the jobs dried up. From last year to this year, it's changed quite a bit, and it's definitely been more difficult than I had anticipated."

That's about the time that Helen Stefan Moreau, president of the Midtown Group, a hiring agency in the District, noticed a shift, with several law firms, financial services companies, and nonprofit organizations instituting hiring freezes. Many freezes have already been lifted and jobs are available, she said, but applicants still have to be a lot more competitive these days.

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