published Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Degree in hand, but job still elusive

Audio clip

Michaela Gonzalez

UTC senior Andy Burnett tugged at his tie and slid the knot into place.

He ran his hands down his shirt sleeves, knocking away any wrinkles or lint, then looked in the mirror.

It was all riding on this interview — interview No. 7. The job available was only an internship at Volkswagen, but it was the week of his college graduation and he faced the end of a yearlong job search with nothing but a thick stack of rejection letters.

“I need a foot in the door,” he said.

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    Staff Photo by Matt Fields-Johnson/Chattanooga Times Free Press Andy Burnett gets prepared in his home for a job interview for an internship position with Volkswagen after graduating from UTC. This is Mr. Burnett's seventh job interview after being turned down by other potential employers.

Mr. Burnett knew the competition is stiff. Hundreds of Chattanooga undergraduate and graduate students just like him with straight A’s and campus leadership experience are trying to elbow their way into the work force.

“I don’t feel like I am a bad interviewer. I feel like I have a good personality,” said Mr. Burnett, a finance major. “But you get weeded out by one little factor. It is really difficult stuff.”

There is a glimmer of hope for students like Mr. Burnett, who will graduate today from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with no real job prospects. Job markets, frozen by the recession, have begun to thaw this spring.

That glimmer, however, is slightly dimmed in this part of the country. Hiring is up in almost all reporting industries in most of the nation, but a new report shows the Southeast still lags in job recovery.

Overall, available jobs may rise 5 percent for 2010 college graduates, the first marked increase since hiring began to tank in 2008, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which tracks companies’ hiring projections.

But after a 21.9 percent drop in hiring a year ago and another 6.9 percent decline last fall, the study shows the hiring outlook for most graduates is far worse than when they entered college.

“Today’s graduates are caught in that window where the recovery is under way, but employment still remains weak,” said Dr. Bill Fox, director of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research. “The current graduates are the folks you would hire when you want to expand your business, and there’s just not enough of that going on for many of them to find employment.”

Dr. Fox said many graduates may opt to return to school or move back with their parents while they await a recovery to provide them better opportunities.

CROWD OF APPLICANTS

On average, there are 40 applicants for every posted job nationally, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ survey. Unemployment in March was above 10 percent in both Tennessee and Georgia and is expected to remain near the double-digit level for the rest of the year, according to economists in both states.

Chattanooga’s biggest employers, including TVA, UnumProvident, BlueCross BlueShield and Erlanger hospital, all said they are hiring some college graduates this year. But with less turnover of their own staffs and no robust growth in their businesses, hiring remains somewhat muted.

“As people leave or retire, we are hiring new workers,” said Jim Sabourin, UnumProvident’s vice president for corporate communications. “But in this environment, we’re not seeing a lot of employee turnover.”

Unlike anything else, the economic downturn has changed the mindsets of many regional college students about their post-graduate job expectations.

Most students used to coast until graduation day with average grades, no work experience and no campus involvement. Then they would launch a job search and most would find work, even in the career fields where they wanted to be, said Jean Dake, director of UTC Placement and Student Employment.

Today, those students are lucky to get jobs as waiters, she said. Too many of them can’t even get internships, and she said she tells some to volunteer their time so they can at least get some experience and contacts at a business or nonprofit organization.

“We have people who want to work at a nonprofit who have worked at a restaurant their entire college career,” she said. “Some people come in and say ‘I have no clue what I can do with my major.’ ... Few students have work experience.”

On-campus employer recruiting has plummeted. At UTC, the number of businesses coming to interview students is down by 20 percent, Ms. Dake said.

At the school’s spring job fair, the number of employer booths was down 8 percent. She said students who attended complained that most of the people there said they weren’t even hiring.

“They are frustrated,” she said. “Some say, ‘I didn’t realize how hard it would be.’ Do you think magically a job will appear because you have a degree?”

Still, a small number of students is learning to start the job-hunt process early, knowing that qualified candidates could search for more than a year, said Michaela Gonzalez, who works as a graduate assistant with UTC Placement and Student Employment. She helps students prepare for interviews and polish resumes.

In the last year, the number of students coming in to get resumes critiqued or access career services has grown, although she said she is unsure of the exact number.

STAYING HOPEFUL

Ms. Gonzales, 25, entered graduate school in the heart of the recession in August 2008. She said she is excited about the uptick in job postings over the last months.

She will graduate today from UTC with a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology but has yet to find work.

“It isn’t just undergraduate and graduate students that I am going up against. I am going up against people with five, 10 years’ experience who have been laid off,” she said. “It is just another element to overcome. But I am hopeful. I guess you have to be.”

For many students, the hardest challenge is making the most of the holding pattern. Mr. Burnett doesn’t know what the results of his Volkswagen interview will be, but he knows he won’t find a job in finance without more experience.

To pass the time, he and hundreds of area graduates will enroll in graduate school this fall. With exposure to new training and more internships, he said he thinks a master’s in business administration could be the jump start he needs.

“A lot of people are putting their life on hold and going into graduate school,” Mr. Burnett said. “A lot of my friends are hopping out with their undergrad (degrees) with no idea what they are going to do. They are getting beat out with kids with graduate school or kids with internships. It’s tough.”

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

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Article: Evaporating tenure

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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