Students begin the search early and look to 'plan-B' as campus recruitment falls.
Despite signs of life in the job market, the outlook for newly minted college graduates remains grim and many are trying new strategies for landing positions.
Students are starting their job hunts months earlier than usual, while others are looking into short stints at positions outside their major.
Bob Tutag began beating the bushes in October, a time when most college seniors are barely back from summer vacation. But it paid off: The 21-year-old Michigan State University student in March accepted an offer at Developers Diversified Realty Corp., a commercial real-estate firm in Beachwood, Ohio. He starts in May.
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Mr. Tutag knew he faced a challenge, having majored in accounting with a specialization in real estate, a sector of the economy hammered by the downturn.
Career-fair recruiting at MSU is down 25% this year. The same story is heard on college campuses from coast to coast: Companies have cut back hiring and when they do have jobs, they have plenty of experienced applicants to pick from. College graduates typically need further training and seasoning, so many employers are skipping college career fairs this year or tapping former interns if they need fresh talent.
Meantime, the job opportunities that are available aren't spread evenly—either by sector or region—and can be hard to spot. And unlike previous years, employers are making offers, and students are accepting them, early in the fall to lock in specific candidates.
Usually, graduating students have held off until the spring to accept positions.
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"Some employers might be encouraged enough to begin to add some employment," said Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at MSU. But he said, "I'm really not anticipating a significant turnaround until this time next year."
But there are some bright spots: The unemployment rate for people ages 20 to 24 with a bachelor's degree was 7.2% in March, down from 7.6% a year earlier and below the 21.9% jobless rate for those in the same age group with high-school degrees only.
Preliminary data from a spring poll of employers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers show college-graduate hiring could rise 3% to 5% this year after falling 22% last year.
Erika Skalski, 22, another MSU student poised to graduate in May, is still searching for a job in event planning after studying hospitality, another area hit by the recession, and Spanish. She was encouraged by the interviews she has had, but so far has no offers.
"I'm actually very nervous about it," Ms. Skalski said, adding that if nothing pans out she will apply to programs that would allow her to move to Spain and teach English for a year or so.
Such plan-Bs are common this year. "We are seeing more students coming into the office talking about what we call the 'gap-year opportunities,' " said Rebecca Sparrow, director of Cornell University's career services, where recruiting is down slightly this year. She often directs them to programs such as AmeriCorps, Teach for America and similar alternatives.
At the University of Florida in Gainesville recruiting has fallen 40% to 50% from the 2007-08 school year. Education is one of the hard-hit career paths this year, said Wayne Wallace, director of the university's career-resource center.
"Several years ago the state of Florida could not find enough teachers," Mr. Wallace said, "now we have school districts that are doing massive layoffs."
Meanwhile, business and technical majors are likely to see the most demand, particularly as Wall Street resumes hiring.
A recent survey from 7city Learning, a financial-services training company, found that 76% of Wall Street firms plan to hire more recent graduates than a year ago.
Certain regions of the nation are expected to do better than others. At the University of Texas at Austin, the communications school attracted 77 employers at its spring career fair, up from 51 last year. Meanwhile, Facebook Inc., which is opening an office in Austin, has been collecting student resumes to help fill 60 jobs.The country's south central and northwest regions are expected to increase hiring more than other areas.
But with such a competitive market, the biggest worry for hiring experts is that students will give up on their job search without ever starting. In some cases that means heading straight to graduate school, an investment that is only likely to pay off if students know what they want to study and why that will better position them to land a job in the future. Graduate-school enrollment rose 6% last year and will likely continue to rise this year.