Across the Tennessee Valley and the nation, college seniors are preparing to enter one of the most dismal job markets in recent U.S. history.
Despite the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs over the past year, national unemployment still hangs at 9.6 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and local colleges are unsure if hiring will pick up for the graduates who soon will flood the already saturated market of job seekers.
"Even in a good year, December is usually a slower time to get hired," said Jean Dake, director of placement and student employment at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "Most employers aren't doing hiring then, even in good years. They typically don't hire in the last quarter because they want to have a positive year -- they don't want to end in the red."
But Dake said chances of being hired improve after the start of the year, and there are glimmers of hope that hiring could rebound in some sectors.
Though recruiting on UTC's campus has steadily declined since the 2000-2001 school year, according to the university's fact book, Dake said the companies that have visited campus this year are indicating they'll hire 5 to 10 percent more people in the coming year.
"It's slow, but it's definitely going to be up a little bit," she said. "And that's good, but the flip side is there are more candidates from the last two years looking, so competition may still be steep."
Where the jobs will be
Nationally, employment is projected to increase by 10.1 percent, adding 15.3 million jobs, in the 10-year period from 2008 to 2018, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than half of those new jobs are expected to be in professional and service-oriented occupations, reflecting a long-term shift from the goods producing sector to the service providing sector, according to the bureau.
The College Board, a nonprofit organization designed to expand access to higher education, lists growing career opportunities for college graduates in areas of education, medicine and business within the next eight years.
Locally, college career counselors are seeing a similar trend.
Sheila Albritton, director of career services and counseling at Chattanooga State Community College, said placement rates in the college's health care, engineering technology and early childhood education programs have stayed steady throughout the economic turmoil.
"Our students are still getting jobs," she said.
At UTC, Dake said there is "obvious demand in the health care field," with interest especially in nursing and physical therapy.
"Then with things like special education, and math and science teachers, if you're willing to go where the jobs are then you'll find one," Dake said. "Probably all of the special education graduates could get jobs in the greater Chattanooga area, because there's such a demand for it and so few people graduating."
The following are estimates of total job openings from 2008-2018 in the fastest growing career fields, based on education level needed for the occupation:
* Postsecondary teachers -- 553,000
* Doctors and surgeons -- 261,000
* Lawyers -- 240,000
* Elementary school teachers (excluding special education) -- 597,000
* Accountants and auditors -- 498,000
* Secondary school teachers (excluding special and vocational education) -- 412,000
Associate's Degree or Postsecondary Vocational Award:
* Registered nurses -- 1,039,000
* Nursing aides, orderlies and attendants -- 422,000
* Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses -- 391,000
Source: The College Board
* Total employment is projected to increase by 15.3 million, or 10.1 percent, during the 2008-2018 period.
* More than half of the new jobs will be in professional and service-providing industries.
* Jobs in manufacturing, retail trade and information, production and administration support are expected to decline.
* Health care, social assistance and professional and business services are expected to increase.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Mark Wilson, director of Cleveland State Community College's Advising, Counseling, Career Enhancement, Student Success Center, said the areas of education, business and health care are also popular at the college.
However, he said employer use of the college's job placement board has drastically declined in the past few years.
"That's a sign of the economy," he said. "There's just not as many people using job placement resources right now to actually find their employees."
He said that doesn't necessarily mean the employers aren't hiring, but may be going through different avenues to find job seekers.
Landing the job
Still, the uncertain job market is worrisome for some students.
Jhovana Cruz, a Cleveland State Community College student, is not only thinking about herself as she prepares to enter the work force, but also her seven-month-old daughter.
"She's the biggest thing I'm worried about," Cruz said. "My other worry is being able to find a job in town."
Cruz, who is completing a co-op through Cleveland State to become an athletic trainer, will transfer to Lee University to finish the program. Though she is in an area of study that falls into one of the categories with projected job growth, that doesn't necessarily mean she'll find a position close to home.
"In Cleveland, it really depends on if a job opens up here, because there are limited positions," she said. "I really hope there is a job out there."
After completing three months of co-op training in health care administration at a nursing home in Etowah, Tenn., Cleveland State student Kim Miller also hopes jobs are available when she graduates next year.
"I'm a little worried," Miller said. "I think the health care field is a great field, I think there's always going to be hiring in that field, it's just a tough market right now anywhere. I do have a few fears, but I think I'm adaptable to a lot of situations."
Local college career counselors said the tough economic times are forcing students to be more flexible, and also are motivating them to aggressively pursue jobs earlier than before.
"Students are more assertive than they were," Albritton said. "I've definitely seen an increase in students seeking work force information ... I really think that students are more aware that they've got to take a more active role, and they are. They're not sitting back waiting for things to happen, like I have seen in the past."