Graduates scramble for jobs in a down market

Sunday, May 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:14 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Communications senior Jen Manian instructs MU Rec Center patrons during a Tiger X class. Manian, who graduated Saturday, has an unpaid internship in St. Louis for the summer and will also teach aerobic classes there to supplement her income.

COLUMBIA – Bob Sobule graduates from the MU School of Business in December, but securing a position in a tight job market is no longer an issue for him. He will go to flight school in Pensacola, Fla., this summer to earn his wings as an Naval aviator.

Nicole Williams, who graduates as a biology major, is escaping the economic doldrums to go overseas. She leaves in July to volunteer with Children for Humanity in Rwanda, then return for medical school.


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Grateful for an opportunity to gain experience in her field, Jen Manian, a graduating communications major, accepted an unpaid internship for a hospital public relations office back home in St. Louis.    

For the 4,963 MU graduates in the class of 2009, the employment picture has rarely looked as bleak. 

Many are leaving the university with no jobs, while others have shifted their career dreams to serve in the military, join the Peace Corps, take unpaid internships or prolong their education in graduate school.

'It's disheartening'

Employers across the country are planning to hire 22 percent fewer grads from the class of 2009 than they hired from last year's class, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

The association's survey reported that 67 percent of the employers who responded had changed their hiring plans as a result of the economy. Among that group, 91 percent said they were reducing the number of college hires.  

“It’s the worst time to be graduating,” said Brandon Cooper, a communications graduate at MU who plans to go to law school. “It’s disheartening not to have a job.”

No region is immune to the current downturn. The Midwest expects to see a 19 percent decrease in the number of college hires in 2009.

“Companies are being cautious at this point,” said Stephanie Chipman, career services director for the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.  

Good news to come

When the economy does turn around, these companies will be ready to hire, she said, especially as baby boomers continue to retire, she said.  That may be good news for future graduates who could see more opportunities for career advancement at a faster pace than ever before.  

“For the brightest and the most ambitious of your generation, the opportunities are going to be incredible,” Chipman said. “(Companies) are looking for the movers and shakers who can get it done, take initiative and create the forward momentum they will be seeking.”

Only two sectors of the economy expect an increase in college hires, the survey indicated — federal government agencies and companies in logistics, transportation and utilities. These groups are expected to hire more college graduates as full-time employees from the class of 2009 than they did from the class of 2008.  

On campus, engineering graduates are expected to fare better than most majors in this tight job market, according to Meredith Shaw, assistant director of career services for the College of Engineering. Grads in agricultural sciences also face bright prospects.

“Engineering is one of the top majors to have on campus, as far as job offers,” Shaw said. In the latest report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, engineering firms account for the largest number of offers made to all new college graduates.  

Why engineers?

These grads have more options because of a nationwide engineer shortage. As federal stimulus projects get off the ground, engineers are anticipated to play a large role in the country's economic recovery, she said.

Shaw acknowledged that some engineering companies are cutting back and have reduced their hiring for full-time jobs and internships. Some students were offered jobs last fall, only to have companies such as Caterpillar recall them later.

Tim McIntosh, assistant director of the MU Business Career Service Center, reports that companies are focusing on finding bright students early.

“Internship conversion rates are the highest they have ever been," he said. "What that tells us is they're putting more and more focus on getting students early on."

McIntosh said companies often hire students for one or more summers so that by graduation, they have developed a sense of loyalty.

“From a company perspective, you have a trained employee,” he said.

From dream jobs to steppingstones

From 2004 to 2008, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, students were able to dictate their terms for jobs. For the next few years, they will have to compete and sell their skills to a limited set of employers.

“It’s harder than it’s been in the last two years, but that’s kind of obvious,” said Amanda Nell, coordinator in the MU Career Center. “Students aren’t going to find their dream job, but rather steppingstone positions.”

Jen Manian understands the "steppingstone concept." She is relying on her unpaid internship this summer in the public relations office at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center to launch a full-time job. Meanwhile, she will be teaching aerobics classes at St. Louis gyms for income.  

“This is more for experience,” Manian said. “I have had an internship, but this is a good start and will help me feel more confident going into public relations.”

Uncle Sam's hiring

Nell said students may be overlooking the available jobs with the federal government or public service organizations. The Web site currently lists 58,589 openings, 739 in Missouri.

A compliance advocate for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in Springfield or Columbia starts at $59,387 and could make up to $94,023, for example. A human relations assistant for the U.S. Army command in St. Louis could earn $34,300 to $44,589.

“Federal jobs are attractive because the work force is going to retire in the coming years,” Nell said.

A number of students have turned to graduate school as an insurance policy for the future. MU's Graduate School has seen a 12.5 percent increase in applications over the last year.

“From conversations, more students are interested in going on to a graduate degree or are moving back home, or are going to a big city and seeing opportunities there,” McIntosh said.

More applications for higher degrees

Terrance Grus, director of graduate admissions and records, said the master's degree in business administration program has seen a 54 percent increase in applications and interest in social service areas has increased by 25 percent. Advanced-degree disciplines such as engineering, however, have declined slightly.

“I believe it is way too soon to make any definitive statements about how the current economic downturn has affected graduate school enrollment or trends,” Grus said. “We have only anecdotal data."

Tracy Gonzalez, assistant dean for admissions and career development for the MU School of Law, reports a steady increase in law school applications.

“The increase is not extreme and appears to be consistent with the national average,” Gonzalez said.

Another viable option for graduating seniors is public or social service with a community or international organization, Nell said.

The Peace Corps, a government-sponsored international service agency, saw a 16 percent increase in applications in 2008 over the previous year, said public affairs specialist Christine Torres.

“We saw a particular up-tick in applications during inauguration week and just following President Obama’s speech where he called on Americans to serve and engage in international outreach,” Torres said.

Twenty-six MU graduates are now serving with the Peace Corps, she said. In all, 890 MU alums have served since 1961, when the agency was created under President John F. Kennedy.

Helping at home

For some graduates, however, public service might be closer to home.

“I have this belief that at some point you have to give something back to the community,” said Steven Welliver, a graduating journalism student entering the Teach For America program in San Francisco. “Ultimately, it came down to this being the right fit for me.”

Teach For America is a two-year program that places recent college graduates as teachers in low-income areas with large achievement gaps. Every year, the program expands a little more, Welliver said, adding one to three new cities while continuing to expand existing programs.   

More students are heading to the military, too.

Commander Sean Vinson of the Mid-Missouri Recruiting Co. cited a 15 percent increase in interest in the military.

“Some people are looking to the military as ‘just another avenue of employment,’” he said. “The economy does not stop those who want to serve their country.”

During an economic slump, student service professionals encourage students to start hunting early and be aware that finding a job may take longer than it did in past years when a student could expect to find work four to six months after graduation. Nell said it might take six to nine months now.

“Students need to do more than just passively click buttons," she said. "They need to be networking and tapping into the hidden job network. The majority of positions go unadvertised. Students need to remain calm, be persistent and remain confident.”

Thivia Mogan: Off to graduate school

Thivia Mogan, a graduating English and psychology major, always knew she wanted to go to graduate school.

Her initial intention was to pursue an advanced degree and eventually become a therapist. Conversations with her professors prompted her to consider industrial psychology, which uses psychological principles on practical problems in education, industry or marketing.

Mogan applied to 11 doctoral programs and was accepted by five. Next fall, she will begin her studies at Old Dominion University in Virginia, which gave her the best financial offer.

Growing up in Singapore, Mogan decided to study in an American university because of its flexibility.

As for the distant future, she sees herself working in industry here rather than Asia.

Brandon Cooper: Law school is next

Brandon Cooper figured out early that getting an advanced degree was the best decision for him. He will head to Oklahoma City University this fall to study law.  

“Luckily, (law school) wasn’t an economically motivated decision,” Cooper said. "I’m not using it as a stall tactic to postpone getting a job.”  

Cooper credits MU’s undergraduate program for preparing him for law school. He majored in communications with a minor in political science.

“People with a law degree are set apart from the rest,” he said. “I’m nervous, but I’m not afraid.”

For those who don’t have their post-graduation plans settled, Cooper advised: “The best thing to do is be patient and know its factors are out of our control. We just have to be more fluid in our decisions."

Bob Sobule: Joining the Navy

In a period of economic turmoil, joining the military comes with the blessings of job security and benefits.

Bob Sobule graduated Friday from the Trulaske School of Business, but he doesn't have his sights set on Wall Street. He has signed up to be an aviator in the Navy.

“When I am done with Mizzou, I have a nice, long career ahead for me,” he said.

Sobule finds the security of the military very comforting.

“I have friends that graduated with bachelor's degrees and are waiting tables,” he said. “It’s scary.”

Inspired by his close family friends in the military and his experience as a volunteer firefighter for the Boone County Fire Protection District, Sobule veered away from corporate law. He wants to be in the action and fly.

“I can’t think of anything better than getting paid a good amount of money and protecting my country and the family I love,” he said.

He hasn’t completely abandoned his idea of practicing law but has switched his emphasis from practicing corporate law, like his father, to perhaps serving in the JAG Corps.  

“After I complete flight school, I have an eight-year commitment to be a Navy aviator,” Sobule said. He then plans to go to law school and have the Navy pay for tuition. “For compensation of financial assistance, I will have another six-year commitment with the Navy.”

Both the Naval Aviator and JAG Corps programs are very competitive and Sobule hopes that with enough hard work and dedication he will be selected. He anticipates remaining in the Navy for 20 years and then entering into the private practice as a lawyer.

“I’m going to have a guaranteed job," he said. "All I have to do is stay healthy."


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Ellis Smith May 17, 2009 | 7:19 a.m.

What bleak employment picture?

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro May 17, 2009 | 3:28 p.m.

If going to college was only for vocational training, any college student and college advisor should know the job market before attending a specific college or choosing a major.
I am also certain that some will be attending graduate school or taking a break and living with mom and dad, for awhile.
Thanks for the article, Ellis.
It's much more meaningful then the headline DALENA HARDY and KYLE SCHETTLER chose.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 18, 2009 | 5:36 a.m.

I'm glad, Ray Shapiro, you found the MS&T article meaningful. So do we. However, I'm not certain that the Hardy/Schettler article doesn't have "utility." It could end up as part of a recruitment package.

(Report Comment)
Mahir Safarli February 17, 2010 | 9:03 a.m.

Interesting article, thanks.

(Report Comment)

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