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.
"This market is one that just really needs to be navigated," she said. "It's not like the old days where someone could pop a résumé out there and get 15 interviews and five offers. You have to seek out opportunities more than in the past. In the past, they were coming to you."
The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in the District, found that college graduates might not be better off in other ways. After analyzing figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the institute found that there was a five percentage point decrease since 2001 in college graduates getting health insurance coverage. Fewer than half of young college graduates receive any form of pension coverage, the institute reported.
"Having a college degree is not the guarantee of a good job with benefits the way it used to be," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute. "And college graduates are now being affected by the kind of squeeze being put on the middle class and blue-collar workers for a long time."
Paul Harrington, an economist at Northeastern University, also found that about 38 percent of young college graduates are "underemployed," or doing work for which they are overqualified.
"It's a loss of resources. It's a social loss. These are bright people who could be engaged in more productive activities but . . . we haven't figured out how to move them into productive activities," he said. "That's the tragedy of a recession."
Alex Bryan, 23, is working as a line cook at a bar in College Park while he searches for a job. He earned a bachelor's degree in studio art and graphic design last August. He took some time off but has been actively searching for work in his field for a few months. He has sent out about 40 résumés and gotten three interviews. "It's not difficult to locate jobs. It's just hard to get one," he said. "A lot of them are upper-level jobs, and they require a little more experience than I have."
Triston McIntyre, a 23-year-old English and political science major at the University of Maryland at College Park, decided to take a more creative route to employment when he graduates this fall. A blogger and writer, he hoped to land a writing job. With those jobs as scarce as they are, he started his own business, partnering with a fellow blogger to create a Web site -- UptownUncorked.com -- that trains businesses in how to create a presence in social media and the Internet.
"Mainly the reason I'm doing this is because there are not a lot of jobs, and I would rather be my own boss," he said.
Most of the area's universities have not yet compiled data on the class of 2008's employment. They said the job market remains anecdotally strong in the Washington area but has definitely softened in some fields.
At Howard University, job fairs that once drew 100 companies are now drawing about 80, said Harold L. Gray Sr., director of the Center for Professional Development and the Center for Insurance Education.
At George Washington University, the recruiters showed up but did not have as many jobs to fill. "What I really think happened was that they didn't have as many jobs but because they had some vacancies, they came anyway," said Marva Gumbs Jennings, executive director of the career center.
Some career center officials said they have heard of job offers being rescinded or jobs changing or being eliminated after the graduates arrive at work. Others say undergraduates are planning to wait out the economic downturn in graduate school.
Recruiters painted a mixed picture.
KPMG's hiring has remained strong in the area but has not grown as much as years past, said Andrew Lewis, primary recruiter for KPMG's District and Tysons Corner offices. In 2006, there were 115 hires. That jumped to 148 last year, then increased to 157 this year. Next year, the firm expects to hire 150. In addition to those hires, the company is keeping many people from its internship class and has been able to retain many more current employees, Lewis said.
"Generally, we had seen our hiring increase between 5 and 10 percent a year over the past four to five years," he said. "This is a year in which we didn't see a step up, but we also didn't see it go down significantly."
Tim Namie, area manager for Manpower Professional, a hiring agency, said that jobs are available but that there are many more applicants to fill them. Ordinarily, when his recruiters post a job, they receive 100 or 150 résumés. Now they are getting more than 200.
"In a tight labor market like this, I would say employers are looking for the upper hand and trying to get more bang for their buck," he said. "They're looking for different things. They're looking for the internship. They're looking for someone who is more aggressive."
How does one stand out in a market like this?
Don't rely only on Monster.com and other Web sites that match employers with job candidates, said recruiters and career center officials. If you are in college now, get as much experience as you can in your field, through internships or part-time work, even if it is unpaid.
Start your job search early, at least a semester or even a year ahead of graduation. Network as much as you can. Reach out to alumni. Join professional associations. Even use connections you have through relatives and friends. "A lot of students have pride. They don't want to ask mom and dad for connections, but you need to tap into every network you have," said Gray of Howard University.
And be open to jobs you might not have considered before. Mark Kenyon, associate director of the career center at the University of Maryland at College Park, said many of the students he counseled were considering jobs in the federal government when in the past they would only have looked at higher-paying, private-sector jobs. "As recent graduates coming out of college, they need to be open to multiple types of career opportunities," he said, adding that most of his students were able to find jobs.
Rumeau said he is open to anything. For now, he is relying on his small salary at the career center and his wife's wages as a project manager at a language center. They have some savings but many expenses, what with a mortgage, a baby coming and $30,000 in student loans. If he doesn't get a career-advancing job soon, he said, he might have to work in customer service or retail to help pay the bills. "I didn't think I would have to do that," he said.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.