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College Grads Face Worst Job Market in Years

David Maley left his internship at Lehman Brothers last summer figuring he would be back on Wall Street in a glamorous investment banking job once he graduated from Colgate University in May.

Now Lehman is history, and Maley is moving instead to a Cleveland suburb to start a management training program at an industrial supply company.

Considering the job market, he’s just fine with that.

“I’m happy to have a job, counting my blessings,” said Maley, a mathematical economics major from Woodbridge, Conn. He thinks he will learn a lot. New York would have been fun but expensive. And in hindsight, he did not find banking work all that interesting.

For many college students in the class of 2009, the post-graduation job hunt has turned into a quest for a rewarding Plan B or in many cases Plan C or D.

After a string of golden recruiting years, employers plan to hire 22 percent fewer graduates this spring, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

But even that figure underestimates the drop, says Sheila Curran, an independent adviser and former head of career services at Duke. She believes the figures are even worse for the “just-in-time” positions offered in April and May that account for 80 percent of jobs for new grads.

Still, many career counselors see a silver lining. Students, they say, got in the habit of noticing only recruiters who visited campus. That was especially true of high-paying investment banks and consulting firms that made the job search easy and practically loaded top students onto trucks bound for New York and other big cities.

Now students are being forced to cast a wider net. Considering they will change jobs three times on average within five years of graduation, they may someday be grateful they developed good job-search skills now.

“In a sense it’s like, ‘Welcome to the real world,’ and it’s not a bad thing,” said Elizabeth Alexander, who works in career services at the University of Texas. “If you come out of college thinking, ‘I’m entitled to a great job,’ the first time you get laid off, it’s going to come as a great shock. Life is full of peaks and troughs.”

Jared Davis, an Emory University senior from Hammond, La., had a bad feeling last month when his cell phone rang with the number of the recruiter from Macquarie Group, the Australian investment bank where he had been offered a job last summer.

He was right to worry the offer was pulled. Now he’s back to square one, looking for work at think tanks and nonprofits.

“I really wanted that job,” Davis admitted. But, “I just don’t think it’s worthwhile to focus to the past. … I can’t blame someone for making a sound business decision. I’m just going to move on.”

Counselors emphasize that job boards are not totally empty. Fields such as health care are still hiring. Even finance still has some life because smaller regional firms are stepping up recruiting at some top schools, trying to attract talent while their big rivals cut back.

Teresa Olsen, associate director of career services at Colgate, says students there are giving a closer look to options they might have ignored in the past like a strong training program at M&T Bank in Buffalo.

Also hiring: Uncle Sam. This week, the federal government had more than 46,000 job openings posted on its centralized job board at including positions for firefighters, budget analysts and historians.

With mass layoffs in the private sector, job security is increasing the appeal of government work, said Murray Welsh, who recruits for an elite fellowship program at the Department of Homeland Security. This year, the program interviewed more than 400 graduate students for 15 slots. That’s nearly 200 more students than last year.

Lisa Newhouse, a senior sociology major at Texas, is considering going to work for the government on the 2010 census. She’s also looking for area jobs in marketing, and mulling graduate school in public health and nonprofit work.

Newhouse was turned down by Teach for America, which places new grads in low-income schools, but she was in good company. The program saw a 42 percent increase in applications over 2008. Around 35,000 students including one in nine Ivy League seniors are competing for about 4,000 slots.

“It’s been frustrating, but I think in times like these you learn a lot about yourself,” she said.

The lessons students are learning this year are networking and persistence.

“Where we’re seeing a difference this year is they have to do the right things over and over again,” said Colgate’s Olsen. “It’s not just reaching out to two or three contacts. They have to keep coming back.”

Colleges report high interest among students in riding out the recession with volunteer work or travel. But students who financed their education with loans may not have that luxury.

Catherine Mendola, a Colgate senior from Tonawanda, N.Y., has sent out letter after letter looking for work as a paralegal, along with e-mails to parents of friends and contacts from summer work. After graduation, she plans to move to Washington, D.C., and live with family, continuing her job search there if need be.

Two friends have backup plans to ski in Colorado for a year. Mendola’s backup plan is working at a coffee bar or at Wegmans, the grocery chain where she’s worked in the past.

“It’s scary thinking I could have spent $50,000 a year for the last four years and still go back to working at Wegmans, but it’s a reality,” she said. “I know I’m going to have to be more patient.”

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