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Jobs Picture Is Brighter For This Year's College Grads

Mara Lee

May 09, 2010

Mike Sciola, director of Wesleyan University's career resource center, cracked a joke as he opened a talk to a group of seniors. "I congratulated them on their really good planning on graduating in 2010."

For the Class of 2009, the job hunt was positively grim. It was the worst job market since the early '80s and it continued through the end of the year.

Demand for this month's crop starting with 4,780 graduating with bachelor's degrees from the University of Connecticut today remains far from pre-recession levels. But students, and the career placement staff helping them, see signs of life.

"It's much better this year, absolutely," said Daniel Rodriguez, who's graduating from UConn with a degree in finance. But he added, "I don't think it's easy by any stretch."

Rodriguez, of Wallingford, interned at Travelers last summer, and by September, the insurer had offered him a job in Hartford, starting this June. Travelers offered jobs to most of the other interns, who came from colleges in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Minnesota, he said.

He'll get a salary of about $50,000 in line with the national average for finance majors, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Rodriguez had an internship at CIGNA the summer after his sophomore year, and he's a big believer in using those opportunities to get on a career path.

The data support that idea, said Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies. While picking a vocational major increases an undergraduate's chances of landing a good job business, engineering, health sciences, computer science, education an internship is equally influential.

New graduates are facing underemployment, not just unemployment. At the end of 2009, just half of college graduates under age 25 had jobs that require a college degree, according to Sum's analysis of census data. In 2000, the figure was 64 percent.

Among the underemployed is Dan Arena, who graduated in December from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island with a master's in architecture and more than $700 a month in loan payments.

He feels like one of the lucky ones he found a $13-an-hour job doing energy audits, and is living with his parents in Meriden. Other friends are handling packages for UPS, or returned to their high school jobs, busing tables or running the register at CVS.

Better, But Weak

As with the economy as a whole, 2009 appears to be the low point. Hiring is finally picking up, with 290,000 jobs created in April, according to Friday's labor report.

"We don't have the numbers yet, but anecdotally, it's a much better year," said Sciola, at Wesleyan.

Last May, 47 percent of Wesleyan graduates had either an internship or a job lined up by graduation, down from 57 percent in 2008 and 64 percent in 2007. The liberal arts university will graduate 760 students on May 23.

But better doesn't mean robust recruiting. Laura Evangelista Newbury, assistant director of UConn's department of career services, said this spring's Big East Career Fair in New York City had the same problems as last year's a shortage of employers ready to hire.

Stacy Vardoulis is graduating today with a degree in chemical engineering from UConn. She attended the career fair, and found that many companies were looking for mechanical engineers, not chemical engineers, and that others were putting off hiring until the fall.

Vardoulis, who had no internships, isn't worried about her lack of leads. Several friends have jobs lined up in California, Virginia and Connecticut.

New Jersey, where she grew up, has many factories and pharmaceutical companies that use chemical engineers, she said. She'll return there to live with her father, and look for a job after a vacation to Hawaii with her grandparents.

If she doesn't quickly find an engineering job, her cousin can hire her as a long-distance trucking dispatcher at $700 a week.

Some businesses are willing to take a chance on smart students with no preparation.

Michael Eldridge has a job waiting in business, though he didn't major or intern at a business. Eldridge, of Ellington, graduated from Loomis Chaffee in Windsor, then Bowdoin College in Maine, where he double majored in physics and religion and spent his summers doing physics research.

His career placement office suggested he apply for a business consulting job at IBM, a regular recruiter at Bowdoin.

"I feel very fortunate. I interviewed for a job back in October, and I'll be starting in August," he said. He'll be working in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, and will make about $60,000 a year. Eldridge acknowledges he knows "virtually nothing" about business consulting, but is comforted that classmates hired by IBM also will be starting from scratch.

Great Divide

Caitlin Kent, who graduates from Wesleyan with a double major in government and Latin American Studies, is at the other end of the salary spectrum from Eldridge. She will be working in California without pay on U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney's re-election campaign through November as a field organizer. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will provide her with a place to live. She plans to go to law school in 2011.

That's an extreme example, but the salary divide is wide for graduates in humanities and social sciences, compared with those in business and sciences, said Sum.

There's also a wide gap between those who land professional jobs and those who don't. Sum said the average salary in 2009 for recent college graduates in professional career jobs was $33,000; for the rest, it was $21,000.

Young people without education have had the highest unemployment in this recession, but Sum said policymakers should also pay attention to the underemployment of college graduates. "There's a big cost we all pay for this," he said, as underemployed pay less in taxes to support society, and lose years when they could be learning relevant skills.

Some of the jobs graduates have landed are a one-year hiatus before career decision-making begins.

Ruthie Lazenby majored in French and philosophy at Wesleyan, and will teach English 12 hours a week in the French Alps for about $1,100 a month. She grew up in Montpelier, Vt., and hopes to find work at a ski resort on the side during the winter.

Her thoughts of what to do in 2011 are vague. She said she'd like to write for an arts and culture magazine, or work in publishing, but knows magazines and book publishing are struggling financially.

"I'm sort of putting it out of my mind," she said. "A lot of people are hoping the job market will improve next year."

Her parents aren't worried about her lack of direction. "They want me to go out and experience something," she said. Her mother, who also majored in philosophy, spent several years backpacking through Europe, living on barges, and selling paintings door to door. Now she's a doctor.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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