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Recession Survival Guide: Harsh Welcome to Real World

CHICAGO — The Class of 2009 may be cursing the economy, but they can’t let it distract them from their job search.

Suzanne Block isn’t basking in the insulating embrace of college as she waits the eight weeks until her May 9 graduation from Lake Forest College.

When she’s not in class or studying, she’s scanning online job sites, sending out resumes and cold-calling potential employers, anything that might get the frustrated 21year-old a job.

"Damn me for being born in ’87," said the English and communications major. "This is just a nightmare. There could not be a worse time to be looking for a job."

After college seniors enjoy their last spring break this month, they’ll return to campus for the final weeks of academia before they enter a recession-weary real world with an 8.1 percent unemployment rate. The first job search is always daunting but particularly so for the estimated 1.5 million-strong Class of 2009.

In August, employers surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers said they planned to increase hiring of college graduates by 6 percent over last year. By October, the revised projection was a 1.3 percent increase in hiring. Then the hiring expectations were flat. Last month’s updated survey showed a staggering change of heart, with employers reporting they planned to hire nearly 22 percent fewer college graduates than they did from the Class of 2008.

Some seniors do have jobs waiting for them; others accepted offers in the fall, only to have them rescinded. Some are hoping to wait out the recession by heading to graduate school — a questionable strategy if it’s not for the right reasons — or are looking at service programs that are inundated with applications. And others are career guidance office regulars looking for assistance.

However, there are worries on college campuses that many seniors either are throwing up their arms and giving up or are so focused on their last semester and confident in their abilities they wrongly figure they’ll easily land a job after graduation.

"The marketplace is going to continue to get worse," said Phil Gardner, director of Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute. "You have to be resilient. It’s not all going to work out the way you want it to. You’re going to be underemployed and not valued as much as you think. But you want to position yourself and keep your sights on where you want to go."

In other words, don’t let a bad economy distract you from a good job search that needs to start now. The workplace may not need as many college graduates as it once did, but the need for the qualities they bring remains, career counselors say.

"There’s something great about a fresh college graduate," said Gillian Steele, managing director of DePaul University’s career center. "They’re up to date with the latest stuff, they’re full of energy. They come moldable and they come with a more reasonable cost as well."

And despite the headlines, there are jobs to be filled.

"There’s a mind-set that there aren’t jobs," said Lois Meerdink, director of business career services at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. "There are, but there are fewer positions, so (students) have to work much harder and outwork their competition." Here’s how:

— Use the services of college career centers, which continue to hear from employers that want to visit campus to meet students regardless of whether they have immediate job openings. Career offices also are adding programs to help students deal with today’s economic realities.

For instance, DePaul for the first time is putting on a special career fair after graduation for non-traditional employers, service organizations and temporary help firms.

— Broaden your search parameters. Look beyond the big firms to smaller employers. Look at other industries where your knowledge base could be applied. Expand your search geographically and realize that while it may be your dream to work in the Loop and live near Wrigley Field, that dream may have to be placed on the back burner for a few years.

Jennifer Waxler, a finance major at U. of I., envisioned a career in corporate finance, banking or consulting and even had a few second interviews. But as the larger banks’ hiring plans have been scuttled, she’s now looking at smaller banks. After graduation, she may move back to her family’s Palatine home and try to find a job as a bank teller, to get her foot in the door somewhere.

"Once I have a job, I’ll appreciate it more," Waxler said. "I’ll have worked hard to get it. I never thought the economy would affect me so directly. I thought by going to college and getting a degree in business from the U. of I., I’d be set."

— Take every opportunity to make a connection, whether it’s by meeting the parents of a friend or by doing an information interview with a company that you’re interested in but has no openings.

"If someone says they have a hiring freeze, I (tell students), ‘Forget that,’ " DePaul’s Steele said. "Stay connected. A hiring freeze can come off as soon as it comes on. If you’re the one who’s stayed in touch, you’ve got a huge advantage over someone else. It’s positioning yourself without doing the big sales job."
Andreas Gloor, a Benedictine University senior who’ll receive finance and accounting degrees in May, has sought out the wisdom of recruiters on and off campus, talked with teachers, gone on informational interviews and even had a human-resources professor and her class critique his resume.

"I am talking to anyone that will listen," said Gloor, who thinks he ultimately will wind up attending graduate school at DePaul in the fall.

— Consider service organizations as a way to develop skills and expand your network of potential contacts. But be aware the paying jobs can be just as tough to get as those with a traditional employer.
Applications for the Peace Corps are up 16 percent this year, compared with 2008. Meanwhile, Teach for America, a program that places teachers in inner-city schools for two years, has received a record 35,000-plus applications, a 42 percent gain over last year. Last year, of the then-record 25,000 applications, 3,700 received teaching positions.

Jackson Froliklong, 21, a Northwestern University senior, is among the lucky ones accepted by Teach for America, and he knows it. The Cleveland native, who’s receiving degrees in social policy and political science, applied to the program in early fall and was accepted in November. He’ll start teaching in a Chicago public school in August.

"I found out right as the bottom was falling out, right after Lehman (Brothers) collapsed," he said. "I was fortunate to lock something up before things turned sour."

— Be ready to move to Plan B: doing something else. Experts say the worst strategy is to try to wait out the recession, because that shows a lack of energy and interest in your career.

This may be, career counselors say, the only time when you can get away with working a minimum-wage job that has little to do with your degree.

Why? Because everyone knows what the economy is like, and managers want to know that graduates are doing something with their time rather than work on their tans or Xbox acumen.

— Take responsibility for yourself and realize the skills you’re learning from the job search process itself.
"Our culture of excess created this generation," said Lindsey Pollak, author of "Getting From College to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World." "You hear the terms ‘entitled’ and ‘coddled.’ The economy is going to slap that out of them pretty quick. If this economy teaches them to be humbled and hardworking, it’s teaching them what their parents and professors can’t."
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© 2009, Chicago Tribune.
Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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