In the coming weeks, college seniors across the country will get their caps and gowns, accept their diplomas and enter the worst job market in modern memory.
National figures indicate that employers may cut on-campus hiring by more than 20 percent compared to last year. Nevertheless, many job counselors and students remain surprisingly hopeful.
It's springtime, and students on the University of Pennsylvania campus are outside, enjoying the sun. But the seniors among them who are about to leave this place will find a cold, cruel world waiting for them.
Patricia Rose, director of career services at this Ivy League school, has been doing this work for decades, and she says this is — without question — the worst job market she's ever seen.
Rose says that ordinarily, Penn graduates leave with a bit of a halo around them, and are mobbed with job offers. Not this year.
Nurses Not Immune
"For example, our nurses are experiencing difficulty in finding jobs," Rose says in dismay. "This is the first time in my memory that a University of Pennsylvania nurse is having trouble finding a job."
Rose says people are putting off hospital procedures, so the need for nurses is dropping in some areas. At the same time, experienced nurses are putting off retirement.
Other areas that were gold mines for Penn grads have also been hit hard, such as financial services and business.
Look To Uncle Sam
What's a grad to do? Look for a government job, Rose says. The government has long been concerned about attracting young people to the public sector, and is still recruiting Penn students, she says.
For many students, the best advice may sound familiar to anyone struggling to find a job — try harder, make your resume stand out and send out more applications. That's what students are hearing a few miles from Penn, at Temple University.
Recently, the Temple career counseling center held a session for students who waited until April to start the job hunt. Students get counseling on how to present themselves to prospective employers, and how to be creative about turning their degree into a selling point.
Mary Claire Dismukes, of Temple's career center, says students at this event are definitely nervous. But they are not panicking. Dismukes is urging students to fine-tune their resumes, and take care to highlight their individual strengths.
Dismukes says students at this diverse, urban school have an obvious selling point: "Many Temple students work while going to school, so they have the ability to manage multiple tasks. They've already had significant responsibilities."
Starting At A Steakhouse
And those responsibilities could end up becoming a temporary career. Teresa Heilman, a biology major, may have to fall back on her current job at a local restaurant. "Sullivan's Steakhouse, in King of Prussia," she says proudly.
Heilman says she's made some good contacts through her waitressing job, and she's been sending out a lot of resumes to local pharmaceutical companies. She has not received any offers so far, but she says something is bound to turn up.
"It's scary. But I'm persistent. I'm sure my abilities will shine through eventually," Heilman says.
Thinking Beyond The Bottom Line
Despite the gloom, companies are hiring; they're just hiring fewer people. That means some employers can take their pick from among top performers.
Lisa Zhu started looking for work in her junior year at Penn. After doing an internship with McKinsey & Company, she got a job offer from the consulting firm.
"I actually didn't take the offer," she says. "I'm deferring for two years to do Teach for America."
That's right — even in this economy, some students are thinking about more than the bottom line. Teach for America reports record numbers of applications this year.
Zhu is going to teach at a Bronx high school for two years. She says that, "given President Obama's election and the popularity of public service, this is definitely something that is worth more to me than just the amount that the job pays."
When she's done teaching, the McKinsey job will be waiting for her.
Students are surprisingly upbeat, and there was little whining about their bad timing. One student said that if you're convinced you won't get a job, you probably won't.