Graduates’ Job Prospects Improving But Not Great

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Grad schoolA time of caps, gowns and — in a trend dating to 2008 that promises to stretch into the foreseeable future — uncertainty over whether earning an ever-more-expensive college degree will actually pay off.

Ryan Spies is moving into a full-time position upon receiving an MBA this month from the Olin School of Business at Washington University. He has beaten the odds in a post-college employment market that experts say has a long way to go before attaining pre-recession levels.

But it wasn’t easy.

Spies knows well that unemployment is nearly 10 percent — or maybe double that when the “underemployed” are figured in. He estimates that he spent between 30 percent and 40 percent of his second year in graduate school on nonacademic pursuits, namely “looking for a job and marketing myself.”

“It’s a competitive landscape,” he said. “You have to do that.”

It wasn’t so long ago that college students waited until after graduation to search for a job. Today, out of necessity, the final year of undergraduate and graduate studies has become — as Spies discovered — a marketing opportunity.

There’s little choice, said Mark Brostoff, director of Olin’s Weston Career Center.

Before the recession, Brostoff said, recruiters eagerly scooped up a dozen or more candidates with general education backgrounds from the college graduate pool. Back then, employers had the luxury of trying out each hire in various capacities to determine how they could best serve the company in the future.

“That’s not the model anymore,” Brostoff said. “The reality in this day and age is that MBA students as well as undergraduates have to focus on a specific skill set and then market themselves accordingly.”

Dana Wehrli, the director of career development at Lindenwood University, agrees that specialization is key for college students competing in a market with seasoned but unemployed workers.

Andrew Gulick fits both categories. An engineer with a California construction company, Gulick “saw the writing on the wall” in the depressed West Coast commercial real estate market. He quit his job and returned to his hometown to earn an MBA at Washington University.

Gulick is now considering an offer to work in general management and marketing for a local technology company. Like his classmate Spies, he found that landing a job straight out of college remains a formidable task.

“The market is very difficult, not only when it comes to competing with other graduates from MBA programs, but from competing with people who have been in the industry for awhile,” said Gulick, 28. “And that makes it tough to stand out to a recruiter.”

The offers, said Wehrli, are going to candidates with “a solid career focus” able to “show a recruiter what they’re able to do.”

In the same vein, the graduate able to demonstrate a proven track record in internships, community service or cooperative workforce programs will always have an edge, added Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville career center director Susan Seibert.

For Spies, a job with St. Louis-based Solutia Inc. was the dividend for refocusing an undergraduate degree to an MBA with a concentration in environmental technology.

Intrigued by the burgeoning field of clean energy, Spies attended conferences and reached out to industry experts before resigning from his first-career job as a project engineer at the Pentagon.

The 28-year-old St. Louis native picked up the thread at Olin, enrolling in classes and participating in extracurricular activities that exposed him to an economic sector with unlimited growth potential.

You have to find a niche, Spies said. “You can’t just say ‘I’ll be a general manager.’ You have to represent yourself in a way employers find intriguing.”

Their attributes notwithstanding, graduating seniors and grad students in St. Louis and elsewhere are receiving mixed signals about their chances of latching onto meaningful employment.

Based on the findings of its most recent hiring survey, the National Association of Colleges and Employers foresees a 19 percent rise in hiring over this time a year ago.

Weighing against that increase is a post-graduation job market still reeling from a 21.6 percent hiring plunge in 2009.

The NACE outlook is nonetheless optimistic compared to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

“The class of 2011 faces the worst job market on record,” the EPI proclaimed in a report issued in late April. The independent Washington think tank said the graduates will find themselves among the 18 percent of the nation’s 18- to 24-year-olds looking for work.

“The class of 2011 will join the backlog of un- or underemployed graduates from the classes of 2010 and 2009 in an extremely difficult job market.

In fact, it is likely that the class of 2011 will face the highest unemployment rate for young college graduates since the Great Recession began.”

Seibert said this year’s SEIU graduates have hued more closely to the assessment of the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

SIUE has seen a slight increase in recruiters visiting campus, Seibert said. And the evidence points to SIUE’s class of 2011 faring better overall than the two preceding classes.

“I think it’s going to be a slow climb back,” Seibert said. “But I don’t think we are anywhere near where we were two years ago.”

Brostoff said Olin also has seen a bump in the number of interviews conducted by telephone and via Internet video.

In 2009-10, he said, recruiters spoke remotely to Olin graduates only 50 times. This year, the number of remote interviews has jumped to 229.

It does not appear that the prospects for graduate students will affect the opportunities available to undergraduates. Many of the grad students now entering the workforce are part of a slight uptick in grad school enrollments by 2008-10 graduates that opted to wait out the Great Recession by pursuing an advanced degree.

According to the Council of Graduate Schools, initial graduate school enrollment rose by 5.5 percent between 2008-09 — an increase of almost one percent over the average first-time annual enrollment over the previous decade.

Now, many of those students have returned to the job hunt.

“Generally, we would expect them to apply for different jobs and thus not be in direct competition,” said Council of Graduate Schools president Debra Stewart, adding, “the time to degree for graduate students varies by field, program, and degree level, so not all of those who have entered graduate school since the recession began would be exiting, and competing for jobs in the workplace, at the same time.”

The NACE survey for the first time this year asked potential employers their hiring plans for graduates with advanced degrees.

Employers responded by indicating they will hire graduate students at about the same rate as undergraduates, said NACE spokeswoman Andrea Koncz.

The hiring rate may not be as dire as it was just two years ago, but Brostoff said it’s poor enough to send a message that it’s imperative to launch a career plan long before the final year of graduate or undergraduate studies.

“No one should be surprised by this anymore,” he said.

Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.