Graduates ponder prospects

But slow economy may make it harder to land career-path job

'I've started to look and there's not a lot out there,' said Nick Murphy, who will graduate from college this month and wants a career-path job. "I've started to look and there's not a lot out there," said Nick Murphy, who will graduate from college this month and wants a career-path job. (Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dave Copeland
Globe Correspondent / May 13, 2008

Even though Nick Murphy is graduating from Bridgewater State College this month, his summer will look a lot like the past three. Murphy, a 22-year-old English major, will once again work as a delivery driver for PepsiCo Inc. in the Worcester area.

"I've started to look, and there's not a lot out there. I'm just not sure how far a degree in English will get me," he said.

Murphy, like many other college seniors about to get their degrees, is going through the agonizing rite of spring: figuring out what to do with a diploma. This year, with the economy in the doldrums, the prospect of securing a career-caliber job fresh out of school seems particularly challenging, especially for those with liberal arts degrees. Instability in the student loan market has compounded their stress - some students worry about being able to afford graduate school, a traditional fallback position in a down economy. A recent survey of hiring managers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers reflects the overall malaise. It found the number of entry-level positions has fallen by as much as 10 percent from last year.

"You could go look at an engineering school and find that the numbers aren't down dramatically, but then if you were to look at a liberal arts program, you'd see the drop off in entry-level job offers is huge," said Michael Wilder of Hayden-Wilder, a Boston consulting company that offers counseling and other job-hunting services to graduates. "When you look at what's happening at financial services, which has traditionally done a lot of entry-level hiring, you just know intuitively that there are fewer positions to go around."

Amidst all the uncertainty, there is at least one glimmer of hope: Another survey, conducted by a Boston company, indicates job offers to some grads are up from last year in industries such as finance and banking, engineering, technology, and healthcare. Experience Inc. - which provides software and services for job recruiting to colleges and universities - found 31 percent of seniors graduating this spring had received job offers, compared with 22 percent a year ago. The company used data collected nationwide in March and April from about 4,000 students and more than 100 companies of various sizes.

Jennifer Floren, Experience's founder and chief executive, said the somewhat contrarian findings show many companies are looking beyond the economic downturn and forward to a looming hiring crisis. As the first wave of baby boomers turns 65, between 10 percent and 30 percent of many companies' employees will be eligible for retirement, leaving employers vulnerable, she said. As a result, healthcare, technology, education, and financial services sectors are all actively recruiting entry-level workers, she said.

"It's typical for graduates to feel overwhelmed, even when the economy is strong, because they've never done a job search like this before," Floren said. "But when they start looking, they're going to find that there is a lot of demand for their talent."

Still, D.A. Hayden, of Hayden-Wilder, said many graduates are unprepared for the hiring process.

"What we have found is that the millennials have been coddled every step of the way from preschool through college," Hayden said. "But when it comes time for them to graduate, they're left flinging in the wind with no one to turn to. A lot of what we do is work with the classic liberal arts graduate that has no clue as to what they want to do."

Jonathan Cohen, 23, does not fall into that category, but he has found job hunting frustrating. Cohen is set to graduate from Brandeis University with a degree in East Asian studies, and is looking for work in government or as a business analyst. Sending out more than 20 resumes has so far led to just four interviews.

"I was hoping for a better response," he said,

Hayden-Wilder has helped him tweak his resume and cover letters, and it has put him through extensive interview prep sessions.

"All you hear, whether it's about the economy or the job market, is negative, so it's a little daunting," Cohen said. "Not only is it bad, but the perception makes it worse. I think some people may be holding off on hiring to see what the economy will do."

The Experience survey also found that slightly fewer graduating seniors are planning to go to grad school this fall: 12 percent, compared with 15 percent in 2006 and 2007. Because most applications for financial aid are not expected to be filed until the summer, it is too soon to say what impact the credit crunch will have on student loan packages. Legislation signed by President Bush last Wednesday is intended to help shore up the $85 billion student loan industry.

Anna Ivey, former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, said the decline in grad school applications probably stems from the fact that more top-flight graduates are getting job offers, not from fears they won't be able to secure loans.

Shelley Saunders, a vice president with American Student Assistance - which guarantees 75 percent of all federal student loans in Massachusetts - said the Boston nonprofit has not seen any upticks in requests for aid that may signal more students deferring entry into the workforce. Saunders also doesn't expect many hassles for students who are looking for loans to pay for a master's degree. The bill signed by Bush offers liquidity for lenders, which should alleviate the burden, she said.

"We encourage people to choose their college wisely," Saunders said. "Price is probably going to be more of a factor now than it was back in January."

Ivey - who now runs a Cambridge consulting business that helps students make decisions about their education, from where to go to school to how to pay for it - predicts students will be able to get loans, but may not be offered the incentives that were prevalent in recent years when private lenders were competing for business. Those incentives included below-market interest rates, bonuses for on-time payments, and attractive terms to refinance existing loans.

"The level of funding is not shrinking. It's just that the terms are getting tougher," Ivey said.

They could get even tougher next year, Ivey said, when more students than ever are expected to graduate from high school. Coupled with a prolonged credit crunch, that could increase competition among students looking for loans.

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