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For Grads, Finding Work Is a Tough Job

May 25, 2003|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Long before graduating from Occidental College last week, Sarah Su made some smart moves to improve her prospects for a career in business.

She landed internships with investment and consulting firms. She fleshed out her resume with campus activities, serving as co-captain of the women's tennis team. And she tracked down Occidental alumni to inquire about possible job openings.

None of that, however, produced a job. All Su got was another unpaid internship -- a three-month stint with a Manhattan Beach investment banking firm.

The 21-year-old Eagle Rock resident is trying to stay positive but says chatting with other graduating seniors about job prospects "is quite depressing.... It's gotten to the point where I don't want to ask people what they're doing."

The downbeat job market has lots of graduating college seniors in Southern California and across the country feeling edgy. Besides taking unpaid internships, many are asking their parents -- or their cousins twice removed -- for job-hunting help, refining their wardrobes to impress prospective bosses or giving up and heading to graduate school.

More students have turned to career centers for leads, campus officials say. And etiquette classes have been increasingly popular, drawing students who don't want to hurt their prospects by using the wrong fork during a lunch interview.

"Three or four years ago, students simply threw their resumes up on an electronic job board and waited for multiple offers to come in, " said W. Edward Morton, director of the career development center at Cal State Long Beach.

Since then, he added, "there's been a distinct change in how students are approaching the job market. Most students are very much aware of the economy, so they are anxious."

According to the latest survey by the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers, the hiring market for college graduates is dismal for the second year in a row. In 2002, hiring of new graduates was down 36.4%, the biggest fall since the organization started its employment survey in 1994.

This spring, "the situation is still pretty bleak," said Camille Luckenbaugh, a spokeswoman for the association.

Eileen Kohan, executive director of the USC career center, said that about 14,000 undergraduates this school year used the campus' career planning and placement center, up roughly 20% from a year ago.

Bad as the job market is, she said, students appear to believe that conditions are even worse. She blamed the mood on gloomy economic and international news and the growing burden of college debts.

Sometimes, students unwittingly fan each other's anxiety, Kohan said.

Graduating students, she said, "talk to their friends and the thing that will cause stress is, 'My friend got a job offer, and I don't have one yet. Is something wrong with me?' ... The perception is that, 'I should have a job by now,' that there's some timetable out there that they've missed the boat on."

Still, Kohan said, many students are channeling their worries into pursuing jobs more aggressively. "We tell students to talk to anybody. If you're going in to get your shoes repaired, start a conversation," Kohan said, laughing. "We believe that the more people who know that you're looking for something, the more chances you have."

But for people such as Amanda Enterante, who graduated this month from California Lutheran University, nothing has paid off yet.

To find a job in TV or film production in recent months, she combed through employment listings on the Internet, in the newspapers and at her school's career center. None of that worked -- so she turned to her parents for help. They went so far as to slip Enterante's resume to a friend in their church bowling league who works for a big Hollywood studio. Initially, she worried that an employer would wonder, "Why isn't she trying to do this herself? Why are her parents trying to make a connection for her?"

She got over that, but it didn't help. Enterante remains jobless. Beginning this week, she will work part-time in an unpaid internship with a newly formed film company.

As is typical in economic downturns, many students are giving up on finding jobs and applying to graduate and professional schools, or they are looking into service programs such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America.

According to Peter Syverson, vice president for research with the Council of Graduate Schools, the number of applicants to graduate schools has climbed at least 5% this year compared to 2% in a normal year.

Many students are preparing mightily for any job interviews they might get, spending their dwindling dollars on new clothes or even polishing their manners.

At Cal State Long Beach, Morton resumed an etiquette workshop this year after a hiatus of about a decade. Eighty students showed up.

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