The recession has been tough on college students and recent graduates looking to land that first job.
The unemployment rate for 20- to 25-year-olds is still more than 14 percent.
Lately, companies have not been beating a path to college campuses looking to hire, so career offices have had to work extra hard to attract employers, help students land internships and reach out to alumni networks.
The recession has forced some students to get on the ball earlier, while some remain clueless about life after college, according to Jan Harris, director of the career development office at the Community College of Philadelphia.
“You’re competing with the people in your classes, but you’re competing with the people who had jobs and lost them, and have experience in the field you’re in,” Harris said. “And then there’s a group, the long term unemployed, they may be desperate, they will apply for anything.”
Harris said it doesn’t help that many students are unrealistic about what it is really going to take to get a job.
“A couple of years ago, it did seem like it just happened. You graduated, you whipped out a resume, you went and got an interview, you got a job,” she said. But then, “it got worse and worse and worse and worse.”
Many young people have lowered their expectations. And some students reacted to the early signs of recession with panic, but not all, said Rachel Brown, director of the career office at Temple University.
“Many students had the attitude of ‘I’m going to figure it out. Yes, this isn’t what I expected, and yes I have the tools to navigate this,’ ” said Brown.
That sounds like the way Viktor Antonius sees it.
“I hang out with people from the business school. I don’t really see that many worried faces around because I think that business, in general, is not getting hit as hard as other majors like teachers or something,” said Antonius, a senior actuarial science major at Temple University.
The Wall Street Journal has reported actuarial science has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. And after a professor showed him a website spelling out how much he could earn, Antonius decided that would be his major.
“After discovering this website, I was set on it. I mean, besides the fact that if you can handle the workload, it’s pretty easy for you to get a job because there’s such a high demand for it,” he said.
While more employers visited campuses in the past year or two, things are still slow.
Career path of smaller steps
Most experts thought economic prospects would have been better by now, according to the director of the career office at Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges. And while students struggling to begin a career aren’t giving up on their dreams, Liza Jane Bernard said they are planning to take smaller steps.
“I do think that because of the economy, people are wrestling a little less long with a tough decision. Not compromising their interests, but not extending a search to get the very, very best angle on the very best job,” she said.
For example, Sharon Park, a freshman graphic design student at Temple University, has decided against doing abstract art.
“I could do something I really wanted to do. I could be an abstract artist, but that’s freelance,” she said. “You would struggle, you wouldn’t have that guaranteed money, but if you worked for a corporate company, like let’s say Google … you would have that money.”
Brown of Temple’s career office said it’s important to see the opportunities that are out there.
“Being open to more contract work, project-based work, one term I’ve heard is ‘the gig economy.’ That’s the shift that we’ve seen,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a bad shift, because if students are utilizing the skills, and they are really learning from that situation and building their brand, it can be a really wonderful thing.
Given the prospect of entering an informal “gig” economy, Park questions the value of paying for a formal education. She said she could learn a lot online for free.
“I don’t know if somebody else could teach me how to use Photoshop because I already know everything about it, I already know color,” she said. “There’s little things I could learn, but I could learn that off the Internet and not pay this much money and be in total debt when I’m older. “
As the unemployment rate inches lower, recent grads still have the challenge of a glut of highly educated people vying for the same openings. Since so many experienced lawyers were laid off during the recession, for example, new law school graduates face cut-throat competition even in an improving job market.