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California unemployment drops slightly in April, but state still leads nation in jobs lost

The U.S. Labor Department says California lost 63,700 jobs in April. But the unemployment rate drops to 11% from March's 11.2%, and one economist sees joblessness leveling off.

May 23, 2009|Marc Lifsher and Tiffany Hsu

SACRAMENTO AND LOS ANGELES — California's unemployment picture improved slightly in April, but a bit of good news brought little cheer to the thousands of college and high school graduates flooding into the worst job market in decades.

Although the often volatile unemployment rate dropped to 11% from March's 11.2%, the Golden State still lost 63,700 jobs during the month. The number of people seeking work has swelled by 842,800 from a year ago, the state Employment Development Department reported Friday.

Economists predict that jobs will continue to disappear for at least the rest of the year. "The unemployment rate will creep up," said Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University in Orange. "During the summer months, there is a jump in the labor force mainly because of new college graduates or students seeking temporary positions. Clearly, there would not be that many jobs."

The grim job market -- the worst in almost half a century -- has put a damper on the graduation season celebrations of students such as UCLA English major Rachel Beezy.

"I'm doing my very best to stay optimistic, but I'm in the same boat as everyone else," Beezy said. "It's a horrible time to graduate."

Before the recession sank its claws in her dreams, the 28-year-old Van Nuys resident hoped to make a career in film production.

So far, she's sent out 20 resumes without getting a concrete response.

Now, Beezy said, she'd be willing to go back to the retail management job she held before college. Even a $10-an-hour internship would sound attractive.

Campus career center directors and recruiters agree that they've never seen competition as tough as it is this spring.

"It's unprecedented. We see fewer and fewer firms coming to hire graduating students," said Gary Greener, associate dean for career services at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles.

In a normal year about 600 employers come to interview juniors and seniors at USC, said Eileen Kohan, who runs the Career Planning and Placement Center, but recruiting efforts are down about 30%.

"Every firm that has laid off people in the past year didn't come," she said. "It's been an incredibly difficult year."

State data bear out Kohan's observations. In March, nearly one in seven job seekers between the ages of 20 and 24 -- many of whom are high school and college graduates -- were unemployed.

That's up 40% from a year earlier, and unemployment among people of all ages with bachelor's or advanced degrees increased by 50%.

The outlook is even worse for teenagers graduating with high school or general educational development diplomas. Unemployment among 16- to 19-year-olds hit 26.2% in March, up from 18.7% a year earlier.

Landing a good job, though more challenging than in recent years, is not impossible, experts point out. At Pepperdine University in Malibu, 35% of graduates already have found jobs.

That is below last year's 40% figure but well above the national average of 20%. And four out of five graduates who were hired managed to find work in fields related to their major.

Graduates still can find opportunities in healthcare, technical and engineering fields, said John A. Challenger, chief executive of the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

But new college graduates must compete against both their classmates and other young workers who have been laid off recently.

"Everyone sees the level of competition increased," said Adeola Ogunwole, a spokeswoman for CollegeGrad.com, a career placement website based in Foster City near San Francisco. "They're up against people who have one, two or three years' experience and lost their way in the economy."

Nevertheless, Ogunwole noted that many top employers, such as Verizon Wireless, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and the Internal Revenue Service, are hiring relatively large numbers of entry-level workers despite the recession.

Unfortunately, many of those jobs get snapped up almost as soon as they are posted, grumbled Christopher Johnson, 25, who earned his bachelor's degree in Spanish with honors last week from USC.

He'd like to get a job as a translator but meanwhile is working part-time in a $30-an-hour tutoring job and struggling to earn enough to pay rent on the apartment he shares with his new, just-graduated wife.

Johnson said he's quickly learning just how cloistered college life can be. "School pumps you up and gives you opportunities to shine in your GPA and extracurricular activities," he said, "but that world doesn't translate into the work environment."

The dearth of entry-level hires and the cold economics of the job market are stifling the motivation of new graduates to hunt for jobs, at least for the short term.

Some say they are considering applying to law school or other postgraduate programs. Others are taking short-term, unpaid internships in hopes of positioning themselves to get a salaried job once good times come back.

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