May 12, 2002

A Parched Job Market Greets New Graduates


Rajiah Williams, a senior at Barnard College, thought she had done everything right to set herself up for a career in television. She got all A's and B's and was a producer for Columbia University's television station, a Head Start volunteer and a member of the French club. More important, she worked summers at Black Entertainment Television, CNN and Fairchild Publications, assuming that the experience and contacts would practically guarantee her a job after she graduated.

It hasn't worked out that way. Over the last few weeks, ordinarily prime scouting time for employers on college campuses, Ms. Williams has landed only one interview for a job that actually existed, at NY1, the 24-hour news channel. Now, she is seriously considering riding out the hard times by moving to Paris to be an English tutor.

"I'm especially discouraged," said Ms. Williams, 21. "I've interned every summer since high school and always recognized the importance of the foot in the door and paying your dues. I never thought it would be a problem. I never thought I'd be in the position I'm in now."

With graduation only days away, Ms. Williams and thousands of other highly qualified job seekers in the New York City area are facing what recruiters, personnel executives and college career counselors agree is one of the most competitive job markets in more than a decade.

And they are advising graduating seniors who haven't found work to redouble their efforts and lower their expectations. In the current labor market, they say, students should scale back their salary demands, be willing to work for smaller companies and even consider relocating far from home.

"You have to use all your resources," said Trudy Steinfeld, the director of New York University's Office of Career Services. "Sitting around in your slippers, searching on the Internet is not going to cut it."

Specialists blame the usual suspects — the sluggish economy; hard times on Wall Street and in the manufacturing and technology industries, and the reverberations of Sept. 11 — for the bleak outlook in New York. But something of a more existential nature might be at work, too, in the view of one career manager. "The situation is made more complicated by the world picture," said Betty Feehan, senior manager of career services for the American Institute for Chemical Engineers, a trade organization. "People are edgy about making decisions."

Employers certainly are. Those who were surveyed last month by the National Association of Colleges and Employers said they expected a 36 percent decline this year in their hiring of college graduates; in the Northeast, they foresaw a 39 percent drop.

In such a buyers' market, students who just a couple of years ago watched companies tripping over themselves to entice graduating seniors with fat salaries and other perks are grateful to get even a single job offer. Others are opting out of the job market and heading off to graduate school.

"It's a stark turnaround: high supply and lower demand," said Dan Black, the area director of campus recruiting for Ernst & Young, one of the Big Five accounting firms. "In the recent past, it wasn't unusual for students to have three, four or five offers."

Mr. Black says Ernst & Young has already filled most of the 300 positions for its New York office, the same number as last year. But this year, it interviewed 10 to 15 percent more candidates and turned away many qualified applicants, he says.

He also noticed a shift in attitude in this year's crop of graduates. "In years past, students were saying, `What can Ernst & Young offer me?' " he said. "Now applicants are more eager. They're saying, `Hey, I can do whatever it takes.' "

Baruch College's director of career development, Patricia Imbimbo, believes there is another reason for the job drought besides the uneven economy: foolish overhiring in the boom years. "There was a war for talent," she said. "There were signing bonuses, offers being made to sophomores. It was a frenzy." As a result, many companies are now laying people off, not hiring them.

Stephanie Cohen, a senior at New York University who majored in secondary education, has broadened her job search to include marketing, public relations, human resources and publishing. She is currently working as an intern at Kenneth Cole, the leather-goods retailer, and was hoping that job would lead to full-time work in the marketing department.

In April, though, she was told there were no positions available. Now, she has set up a series of interviews, one with Kenneth Cole's international department and others for a marketing job at the Scholastic Corporation, a New York publisher, and for the position of community-service coordinator at a West Village community center.

Ms. Cohen, 22, has also been networking with friends and family members, and meets regularly with one well-connected acquaintance who has provided her with contacts at Condé Nast and American Express. "I worry about it every day," Ms. Cohen said of her job prospects.

Career counselors think Ms. Cohen is on the right track. Ms. Steinfeld, the career-services director at New York University, advises students to master the nuts and bolts of job hunting, especially networking with everyone they know, attending professional association events and following up on résumés they send to potential employers.

John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the outplacement firm, says college seniors should consider careers in government, insurance, health care and nonprofit organizations, where jobs may be more plentiful. Indeed, the survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows that the federal government and the insurance industry are two of just a handful of sectors that are expected to step up hiring this year.

For all the obstacles, of course, many students are being hired. Abraham Salcedo, a New York University senior who completed an internship with PricewaterhouseCoopers last summer, has been offered a job as an accountant with the firm. And Meredith Silverberg, a senior at Barnard, has accepted a job as a legal assistant with Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the Manhattan law firm.

But other graduating seniors have concluded that looking for a job right now just is not worth the effort. After Teisha Covino, a New York University senior, saw her friends jumping through hoops, she scratched her plan to work for a couple of years before going to law school. Instead, she will attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School in the fall.

Likewise, says Ms. Feehan of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, many top engineering students are heading straight to graduate school rather than spending a year or two in the field, a common practice in flush times. One student at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., even abandoned his ambition to become a chemical engineer and joined his family's seafood business, she says.

Ms. Feehan says engineering students have a rough time looking for work because they tend to be introverts. Her advice: they should overcome their inhibitions and network like everybody else. "They need that New York chutzpah," she said.

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