College graduates are less choosy as they launch into their work lives

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010; A12

One year ago, the Class of 2009 left college and jumped into one of the worst job markets in history.

Cautionary tales about the real world were quickly passed down to younger students: Searching six months for a job, waitressing and bartending stints, moving home with mom and dad, racking up more debt.

"Many of my best friends graduated last year. One out of five has a 'career job,' " said Christina Haley, 21, who just graduated from Marymount University in Arlington County. "We all had seen a couple of years of people graduating and not finding jobs. It put the fear in us to start earlier, to pull strings so that we wouldn't be stuck."

Several career center directors from around the region say the vibe is different in the Class of 2010.

Instead of debating salaries and benefits, many students set their sights on simply getting a job. They begged for internships. They hyper-networked and filed dozens of applications. They often locked in on early offers rather than holding out for something better.

And some 2010 grads decided to wait things out. This academic year, more have taken the Law School Admissions Test than last year. Teach for America, which recruits for hard-to-staff public schools, received a record 46,000 applications for this year's class and was the top employer at some universities.

"People have not waited for the dream job because they don't think it will ever open up," said Beverly T. Lorig, the director of career services at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.

A national survey of about 13,000 graduating seniors found that 39 percent had received job offers and 59 percent of those students accepted them, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That's higher than last year, when 40 percent of seniors got offers but only 45 percent of them accepted. The result is that 24.4 percent of 2010 graduates reported having a job before graduation, up from 19.7 percent of the Class of 2009, according to the survey.

Several career centers saw record numbers of students at the beginning of the school year in September and October: More seniors wanted to start their job search early, more underclassmen wanted to find internships and more out-of-work alumni wanted help.

To keep up with the traffic, career centers had to be creative with resources -- after all, this is not a time when universities are bursting with extra cash. The University of Maryland at College Park moved some of its career services online, shortened one-on-one appointment time slots and offered more clinics. Catholic University, in the District, upped its outreach to employers, added more walk-in and evening hours, shortened consultations to 30 minutes and reviewed more résumés by e-mail, usually from home on the weekends.

"Usually the fall semester, for us, is a little more relaxed," said Jen Spataro-Wilson, director of career services at Shenandoah University in Winchester. "From the very beginning, at freshman orientation, we're talking about after-graduation. . . . I think now students are actually listening. They want to be prepared."

Simone Smith, 22, who graduated in May from George Washington University in the District, watched the unemployment rate her entire senior year and realized that she had to do something drastic to land a job in the California Bay Area, where her parents live.

Her dream job: Being a professional millennial generation trend-spotter.

Her plan of action: Apply for at least 100 jobs.

Backup plan: Live at home, do freelance work.

Smith created accounts on several career Web sites. She set up an RSS feed for relevant job listings that popped up on Craigslist. Then, she applied to everything she could find.

"It's hard to get used to rejection. It isn't just your experience and résumé that they are rejecting -- it's you," she said. "If I apply to 100 jobs, then I will get used to that rejection."

She easily hit 100 applications by the Sunday in mid-May when she graduated. She moved home that Monday, and started job interviews Tuesday.

Before the end of the week, she had an offer to be an online marketing and community coordinator for HubPages, a compilation of blogs from across the country. She canceled her other interviews and signed a contract.

"I just wanted to find something," Smith said. "I had no intention of finding something so soon."

Haley, the 2010 Marymount graduate, landed a job with a political fundraising and financing firm in the District after applying "for anything and everything" and tapping all of her connections, including the parents of children she once babysat. She had worried about being stuck in her retail job.

At her graduation party, no one talked much about jobs and job searches. Of the six grads at the party, only three had definite plans.

"Yeah, we're happy, but we're not going to make a big deal out of it," she said. "I was one of the lucky ones."

Right now, Kristin Parris is one of the unlucky ones. Parris was one of 20 honors students to graduate from Howard University's business school, in the District. Typically, those top graduates receive six or seven job offers each during their first semester of senior year.

Such calls during the past two years have become much rarer, and the director of the honors program said some recruiters who once called her looking for students to hire are now calling to see whether she has heard of job opportunities for themselves.

This year, the offers didn't come until second semester. The most offers anyone had was three -- and Parris didn't get a single one.

"I never in a million years thought I would graduate and not have a job. I never, ever thought I would," said Parris, 22, who searched for months for a human resources position. "I was too narrow in my job search. I think if I had opened myself up a little more, I might have a job. Probably not my dream job, but a job."

Soon after graduation, she signed up for a two-week seminar that teaches the basics of media sales and began to learn the trade from scratch. She completed that program this month and hopes the connections she made will land her a job.

"I could do sales," she said. "I never thought that I would. But I could do it."

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