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5/8/2003

Doors closed

By Laurie Willis
The Baltimore Sun

Graduating college seniors are facing one of the toughest job markets in years.

With the slumping economy and about 1.3 million students expected to graduate in the next few weeks, many are still wondering where their first paycheck will come from.

Some are opting for part-time jobs or internships to get their foot in the door at companies. Others are signing up with temporary job agencies to ensure some income while they wait for full-time employment.

With student loans to repay, graduating seniors must generate income fast.

Some graduates aren’t even bothering to hunt for jobs.

Instead, they are electing to remain in school.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, graduate school applications are up 22.5 percent over last year, compared with a 4.7 percent increase the previous year, said Christopher Irwin, public relations coordinator for the university’s Career Center.

For grads seeking employment, times aren’t good.

“It is tough out there right now, that’s for sure,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago outplacement company. “It may be the toughest year for grads in the last decade.”

Challenger said new college graduates are competing against recent graduates who still are searching for entry-level positions or have been laid off, especially from dot-coms and small companies.

And more experienced workers who have lost jobs also are in the market.

Nationally, the unemployment rate hit 6.0 percent in April, a jump of .2 percent.

“What is happening now that’s a little bit different than previous times when unemployment was up is people are out of work for longer periods of time,” said Jennifer Schramm, manager of workplace trends and forecasting for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. “Some people said hiring would pick up right after the war came to an end. We’ve seen different sectors that are relatively timid about hiring. Now, it doesn’t appear to be particularly good.”

Overall, the economy has been shedding jobs, not creating them.

“We’ve lost 465,000 jobs in the last two months across the country, at a time when most thought that was going to start to drop,” Challenger said early this week. “Companies right now, because they’re so thinly staffed, are putting a higher premium on experience. They want people who can come in and hit the ground running, and someone coming out of college, by definition, can’t do that. I think it’s doubly tough this year for graduates.”

Wednesday, Challenger said employers made nearly 150,000 more cuts in April, bringing the total jobs lost this year to more than a half-million.

Even though the job market is tight, some companies are hiring.

And, officials at Baltimore area colleges and universities say many recruiters still come to their institutions for job fairs and one-on-one student interviews.

“We have an on-campus interviewing program that’s part of a free, online job service called Terp Online,” said Irwin, of the University of Maryland. “Those two working together allow students to post their resumes and go through the process at their leisure in unconventional hours and settings. On campus, we bring recruiters here to meet with students one-on-one. It keeps them from having to trek all over the D.C. metro area, and it personalizes the interviewing process.”

Jan Cotton, manager for Maryland’s on-campus interview program, said 16,000 students registered to use the Terp Online system, an increase over past academic years.

“Because of the challenging job market, more students realize the convenience and the ease of which Terp Online allows them to connect with employment opportunities,” Cotton said. “These are national employment opportunities, and we’re still seeing a strong representation from the technology sector, engineering, business, finance and banking industries. Government agencies have also been recruiting here heavily.”

Meghan Mariman, a Lockheed Martin Corp. spokeswoman, said company representatives recruit at Morgan State University, the University of Maryland, College Park, University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Naval Academy, among others.

“Right now we’re currently planning on hiring about 10,000 to 12,000 employees per year for the next few years, and obviously some of those would be college graduates,” Mariman said.

At the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Theresa Queenan, director of Career Services and Cooperative Education, said recruiters have come to campus seeking students majoring in computer science, business administration, accounting, hotel and restaurant management and criminal justice.

“It is tight right now,” Queenan said. “The number of recruiters coming to campus has dropped because of the economy, but they’re still coming.”

At International Business Machines, employers hope to fill about 4,000 jobs this year through the company’s university-hiring program, said spokeswoman Kendra Collins.

“We basically work with a hand-picked group of colleges and universities and conduct interviews and discussions on campus,” Collins said. “Right now, our focus is on a combination of technical skills and competencies. The skills we’re recruiting for now include consulting, life sciences, sales, technology, systems and software.”

Some graduates will opt for jobs through temporary agencies until they land positions in their fields.

“To take out a part-time job is a reasonable answer right now if it’s in something you’d like to do long-term,” Challenger said. “It might give you exposure to see if that’s the kind of environment you want to work in, and it gives the company a chance to take a look at you and see how you are in a work setting. Those part-time jobs can lead to full-time work, especially if the economy does turn around.”