Bryan College -- May 11, 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Covenant College -- May 4
Chattanooga State Community College -- May 11, 10 a.m.
Cleveland State Community College -- May 11, 10 a.m.
Lee University -- May 4
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga -- May 4
Sewanee: The University of the South -- May 12, 10 a.m.
Southern Adventist University -- Today, 9:30 a.m.
Bryan College -- 184
Covenant College -- 185
Chattanooga State Community College -- 1,390
Cleveland State Community College -- 465
Lee University -- 400
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga -- 1,175
Sewanee: The University of the South -- 333
Southern Adventist University -- 436
At the end of the month, 22-year-old Tyler Dixon will pack his life into his 1997 Toyota Camry and make a 36-hour drive to California to put his newly minted bachelor's degree to use.
The soon-to-be Bryan College graduate landed a job with a startup film company -- he'll be controlling the camera on remote-controlled helicopters used to get aerial shots for films. It's a part-time job on the other side of the country, and Dixon is leaving everything familiar to do it.
"It's a 'I'm going with the clothes on my back' kind of thing," he said.
But the gig uses both his minor in film studies and his major in computer science, and he's thrilled to have it.
And he should be. Only 20 percent of this year's Chattanooga-area graduates have jobs lined up in their fields of study, a Chattanooga Times Free Press survey of graduates from six regional colleges shows. Nationwide, employers expect to hire about the same number of new graduates as last year, an indication that the market's recent growth is starting to slow.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers is projecting a measly 2.1 percent increase in college grad hiring this year, down from a 10.2 percent increase last year and a nearly 20 percent increase in 2011. It's growing, but not by much.
"It's still a positive job market," said Andrea Koncz, employment information manager at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. "Employers still plan to increase their hiring. It's down to 2 percent, but they're still hiring."
At UTC on Saturday, the ground level of McKenzie Arena was packed with black-robed, tassle-toting graduates. Some rushed from room to room looking for the right spot in line; others stood in tight, excited clusters, fiddling with cellphones and passing soaked umbrellas and jackets off to relatives.
"I'm still waiting for it to hit me," said Brittany Ammons, who studied French and is planning to go to graduate school in the fall. "I think it will when I hear the orchestra. Right now I'm soaking it all in."
Ammons is one of 4,000 area college graduates who will don robes, shake hands and snap photos during the next two weeks, as Chattanooga State Community College, UTC, Southern Adventist University, Lee University, Cleveland State Community College, Covenant College, Bryan College and Sewanee: The University of the South all hold their commencement ceremonies.
Whether those students will be able to turn their diplomas into careers depends on myriad factors, said Jean Dake, director of career and student employment at UTC. A student's previous work experience, personal networking, major and persistence all factor in.
"A lot of them don't realize the hard work it takes to get a job," she said. "They don't just walk across the stage and the job magically appears."
A typical job search will take at least four to six months. But some new graduates will start with a leg up on their classmates. This year, most employers are looking for workers with degrees in business, engineering, computer sciences or accounting, according to NACE.
That holds true in Tennessee, too. In a nine-county region around Hamilton County, business service jobs -- such as management analysts, accountants, database administrators and computer programmers -- are seeing a shortage of qualified workers and increased demand, said Martha Wettemann, statistical analyst supervisor at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
"We still have shortages in those computer occupations that require a four-year degree," she said. "We consistently don't have enough people in those areas."
Jerry Preisel studied finance at UTC and hasn't found a job yet. But he has taught himself how to write computer code and is working with a recruiter to try to connect with the right employer.
"Every company has different keywords, and you never know what they're looking for in their scans," Preisel said. "I think a recruiter right now is the best way to go. I've been teaching myself for the last year to do coding, just to have that extra edge. I figured I might as well try it out; it can't hurt."
He's confident he'll find a full-time finance job within a month. And so are most of his fellow 2013 graduates -- more than 60 percent of students who responded to a Times Free Press survey said they expect the job market to improve during the next year.
But even as the market improves and recovers from the recession, which hit hiring hard in 2009, competition is still tight, Dake said.
"It's still tough out there because candidates who graduated a year or two ago who didn't get in the job of their choice are competing with this year's candidates," she said.
Despite the challenges, more than three-fourths of polled graduating students think they'll have a standard of living at least as good as their parents. On Saturday, soon-to-be graduates were optimistic, but ready to fight for their American dreams.
"I think if you put everything you have in and work hard at something, you'll be able to achieve it," business management major Alex Evans said. He turned an internship at U.S. Xpress into a full-time, post-graduation job.
"I think the American dream is having the freedom to do what you want to do," said Ethan Poe, who studied economics. "I think it's still here, but a college degree isn't what it used to be. You have to go above and beyond."
Dixon, who grew up in North Georgia, is the first of his siblings to attend college -- neither of his grandparents, who adopted and raised him, went to college. His grandmother worked in a carpet mill, and his grandfather was a diesel mechanic, he said.
"I just knew that I'd have to do college to be competitive in the job market," Dixon said. "I just didn't want to settle for a low-paying job. I wanted to get something good."
And as he prepares to head to California -- with 170,000 miles on his car, a diploma and some student loans -- he's glad he stuck it out.
"Regardless of whether I got this job or not, it was a good experience, and it put me in social and professional environments that would have helped me either way," he said. "I think it was worth it."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6525.