Emily Pietrantone thought when she earned her nursing degree, she would have her choice of local jobs.
But like about half of the record number of college graduates who received diplomas across Chattanooga on Saturday, the 21-year-old nursing grad is still looking for work, even though she graduated with highest honors from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
"I didn't expect it would be this hard to find a job because I always heard there was a nursing shortage," she said. "But with all of the nursing schools in our area, it's really competitive right now. I'm going to have to broaden where I can work."
College graduates are entering the best job market in nearly four years, according to employer surveys by the government and college placement programs. But more than half of the new graduates from Chattanooga-area colleges haven't yet found jobs in their field of study.
A two-year or four-year degree is no guarantee of a top-paying job, and graduates must be flexible and willing to compete in a changing, global economy, according to Murat Arik, associate director of the Business and Economic Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
According to a spring survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, businesses plan to hire 10.2 percent more graduates this year than a year ago. But with more graduates, the number of applicants for each job still is up, the association reported.
A record 1,080 students graduated Saturday from UTC, and another 200 who expect to graduate in August picked up diplomas.
Nearly 2,000 others were awarded diplomas Saturday from Chattanooga State, Cleveland State, Lee University and Covenant College.
Many said they plan to pursue other degrees or take some time off before entering the job market. Most graduates responding to a Chattanooga Times Free Press email survey said they are confident the job market will improve and they will ultimately find work related to their degrees.
"I think the economy will bounce back, and I'm confident I will find some job in my field," said April Warren, a 23-year-old political science graduate from UTC who plans to go to law school. "A college degree still gives you a lot of advantages."
The U.S. Labor Department reported Friday that the jobless rate for those with college degrees last month was 4 percent, or less than half the 8.1 percent for all workers.
But with more student debt and less immediate opportunity for higher-paying jobs, many new grads question whether they will fulfill the American dream of doing better than their parents' generation.
Among Times Free Press survey respondents, 45 percent said they thought they will have a higher standard of living than their parents. By comparison, 27 percent thought they would live as long as their parents and 25 percent though they would live less well than their parents.
"I don't see how it's going to get any better, at least until we stop blaming each other and try to figure out some long-term solutions to our debt and economic problems," said Tim Henshaw, a UTC political science graduate. "I want to be optimistic, but right now I'm not."
"We are in the middle of dramatic changes in the way we do business, and you can no longer simply claim that you have a college degree and expect to find a job," MTSU's Arik said. "You need to have something that fits the requirements of the market, and in today's market, graduates need to be willing, in some cases, to start jobs beyond their comfort zones and be willing to relocate or do something different than you may have imagined."
Although private-sector jobs are growing again, many state and local governments have trimmed jobs or aren't hiring new workers.
Kaitlin Ewing, an elementary education graduate from UTC, has a job interview Wednesday. But she knows she is among 400 applicants for the teaching position.
"It's a little scary, and I realize I may have to move to another area to find a job," she said while waiting to get her diploma Saturday. "The job market is tough, but if you apply yourself and have a real passion for your job, you can make it."
To be sure, those with the right skills and experiences are landing jobs.
Cassandra Powell, 22, a UTC accounting graduate, will start full-time Monday as an assistant business analyst with the Vincent Group in Chattanooga. She plans to earn her CPA and a master's degree in accounting while working.
"In order to do well, you need to have more than a bachelor's degree," she said. "But the American dream, I believe, is very achievable."
Many others with two-year degrees or trade certificates in high-demand fields also are landing attractive jobs.
Jeff Leight, 33, graduated from Chattanooga State's health information management program and already has a job with Healthport, helping hospitals and physician offices handle and release information. He plans to take the exam soon to become a registered health information technician, a job that typically pays from $30,000 to $60,000 a year.
"I've worked in restaurants for years, but with two kids to support I didn't want to be a cook for the rest of my life," Leight said. "There's a better future in health care, and I think I'll probably end up doing better than my parents."
College surveys show that most graduates eventually find jobs in their chosen fields if they do not go on for further schooling. In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, 98 percent of Chattanooga State graduates were working in their fields within a year of graduation, Chattanooga State Associate Vice President Eva Lewis said.
"Our programs are designed to provide our graduates jobs and if we find we are offering a program that is not meeting the needs of the job market, we drop it," she said.
Even so, some graduates don't necessarily expect to fulfill the American dream of making more money than their parents. Fewer students expect to stay in the same jobs their whole careers or to get the type of pensions their parents will likely receive.
"We're going to have to live differently than did our parents," said Lucy Landis, a 23-year-old UTC graduate who majored in environmental science.
"The American dream needs to be about more than simply having more possessions and, unfortunately, we're going to have to clean up some of the mess left by the previous generation."
But Landis and other graduates said new technologies and broadband links are opening up more opportunities for individuals to succeed in a host of new ways and new places.
Max Fuller, co-founder of the nation's second-biggest privately held trucking company and the keynote speaker at UTC's commencement ceremony Saturday, said the economy was just coming out of another recession when he graduated from UTC in 1975. A decade later, Fuller and Pat Quinn founded U.S. Xpress Enterprises in Chattanooga, which has grown into a nationwide trucking company with more than 8,500 trucks and more than $1 billion in annual sales.
"I learned to work not just for a paycheck, but to work to make a difference -- and that's what I would urge all of you to do," Fuller told this year's UTC grads.