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Job market worsens for recent college graduates

Unemployment among young adults is worse than the U.S. average. Little relief is in sight.

December 14, 2009|By Don Lee

Reporting from Washington — The unemployment rate dropped last month for men and women, blacks and whites, lifting hopes that the long dry spell in the jobs market may be coming to an end. But for recent college graduates and other young adults, the labor situation didn't just remain dire -- it got worse.

For 20- to 24-year-olds, the jobless rate rose four-tenths of a percent to 16% in November, even as unemployment nationally slipped to 10% from 10.2%.

And data from the Labor Department show that the unemployment figure for college graduates in that age group was 10.6% in the third quarter -- the highest since early 1983 and more than double the rate for older college-educated workers.

Kyle Daley, 22, of Walnut Creek, Calif., provides a grim case study. In June, Daley graduated from UCLA, one of the country's best universities. He received a degree in political science. His grade-point average: a solid 3.5.

Since January, he has applied for about 600 jobs, mostly entry-level positions such as office assistant, junior analyst and marketing associate. He has reached out to small firms and Fortune 500 companies in aerospace, entertainment, finance and government, from Alabama to Washington state.

The results: two interviews, one in person and another over the telephone, neither of which panned out. Compounding his financial bind, Daley doesn't have enough work history to qualify for jobless benefits. So he lives with his parents and gets around with mass-transit tickets from his mom.

Eventually, things will probably get better for Daley and for classmates he said were having similar problems. After all, job and pay prospects for college graduates are generally stronger than for workers with less education. But studies also suggest that graduates entering the workforce in a recession see negative effects not only in the short term but for years into the future in terms of pay and career mobility.

Entry-level salaries are usually lower in tough times, and for most workers, where they start is one of the biggest factors in how much they're earning a decade later. The slower start can also influence family formation and consumer spending on such things as cars and houses.

Those effects are likely to be even more pronounced this time given the severity of the latest recession.

"At this point, it's almost like I can't even start on building a career or a life if I can't get my foot in the door," Daley said.

Kathy Sims, UCLA's Career Center director, said Daley's case was unusually bleak, but she noted that the last 12 months was the worst job market that she'd seen in her 32-year career. Last winter and spring, she said, 40% fewer companies came to recruit on campus than a year earlier.

Although the recruiting activity looks stronger heading into 2010, neither Sims nor officials at other universities see a robust recovery soon in the hiring of new graduates.

"I think it's going to be marginally, slightly better next year," said Patricia Rose, who runs the University of Pennsylvania's Career Services.

Rose wasn't surprised by Daley's experience. Unlike other recessions, she said, this one hit particularly hard and across the board, even for graduates of programs such as nursing, where demand almost always outstrips supply.

When the economy has turned down in the past, she recalled, Penn nurses had little trouble getting jobs. But this time, Rose said, experienced nurses went back to work or signed up for more hours -- some because their spouses had lost jobs -- and that left fewer openings for fresh graduates. Overall, 61% of Penn students who graduated in May with a bachelor's degree were employed full time within six months, down from 68% last year, Rose said.

About 20% of this year's class reported going to graduate or professional schools. Many of today's college students continue their studies beyond bachelor's degrees, but this recession has intensified the trend as students sought a haven. At Penn the figure was up from 18% last year.

Many colleges and universities haven't yet collected job statistics for this year's graduates. And some, including UCLA, either don't track or don't publicly report placement data. (UCLA's Sims said she doesn't because too few students respond to surveys.)

The National Assn. of Colleges and Employers won't have employment statistics for this year's graduates until early 2011, but it's almost certain to show a further sharp drop from last year's levels.

Last year, an average of 67% of students had full-time jobs within six months of graduation, according to reports from 557 four-year colleges. That was a decline from a placement rate of 75% for the class of 2007 and 77% the year before.

Edwin Koc, the association's research director, said he'd had discussions with several dozen colleges in recent weeks, and some of them are seeing employment rates as low as 30% for those who graduated six or seven months ago.

"It's going to be a bad year," he said.

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