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Graduates struggle in a tough job market

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

MIDDLEBURY — More than 500 students took their diplomas in hand on Sunday at Middlebury College, marching across an outdoor stage on the college quad into a job market that, recent grads agree, proves as daunting a challenge as any final exam.

The graduates are heading into a marketplace where, according to a recent study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers expect to hire 22 percent fewer new grads this year than they hired last year.

A survey of around half this year’s Middlebury College graduates shows that about 25 percent of the class has landed jobs — down from 32 percent last year. Now, the rest of those newly minted alumni of the college are asking the same question that this year’s estimated 2.3 million college graduates are asking: what next?

It’s a topic that commencement speaker Gary Hirshberg, the “CEYo” of organic yogurt-makers Stonyfield Farm tackled in his address to Middlebury College graduates on Sunday.

“I recognize that you are beginning your journeys exactly as I began my business: broke, clueless about the future and in debt,” said Hirshberg, whose original seven-cow organic farm has grown since 1983 into a business that now makes $320 million in annual sales. “And since you are graduating into the worst economy and jobs picture since the Great Depression, I think it is reasonable, as you leave the security of your dorms and apartments and your relatively predictable schedules, for you to be completely terrified.”

In the short term, 41 percent of this year’s crop of Middlebury College graduates are hunting for jobs. Others have taken internships, or plan to head directly to graduate school. But for those looking for paying work — grads from Middlebury and every other college — the job search this year demands flexibility, networking and new expectations about joining the workforce.

That means considering temporary work, signing up for one- or two-year fellowships or volunteer programs, and being willing to look beyond the traditional hubs of New York City and Boston for employment.

Concord, Mass., native Matt Boucher is an old hand at job applications: he graduated from Middlebury last spring, and turned down a job in consulting to work as a residential advisor for the college. He said the job hunt last year wasn’t too bad, and he mostly relied on networking to land his position — though now Boucher wonders if he would have taken the job, had last year’s job market looked like this one.

“It seems like jobs are a lot scarcer now,” Boucher said.

That said, Boucher is optimistic about the coming months. He’s headed to the Tuck Business Bridge Program at Dartmouth College, a four-week crash course in business for recent grads and liberal arts students. He said he hopes the program will help him land his next job, preferably in consulting, marketing or advertising.

“I realize that if I don’t get a job in one of those, I’m going to have to take a job in anything that comes my way,” Boucher said.

These sort of transitional programs are common among many recent graduates.

Dina Magaril, a Middlebury alumna who graduated in January, spent much of this spring traveling. Now she’s back in her native New York City, but she said the tough job market there might force her abroad again sooner than she’d like.

She’d been hoping to land a job in the publishing industry, in which she’d interned and worked during summer breaks in college. But Magaril said the job openings have been few and far between. The few entry-level jobs she has stumbled across have been swamped with upwards of 500 applications a piece.

So now, she’s working as a waitress and nanny to make ends meet, but said a one-year teaching position overseas might be the most realistic shot she has at meaningful work. She has a job offer on the table — one to which she hasn’t yet committed — for a position in Barcelona.

“When I left college, I was ready to settle down in New York,” Magaril said. “I would love to be here, but it doesn’t seem like an option right now.”

Alison Maggart, a 2008 graduate, agreed that heading abroad offers a chance to beat the tough U.S. job market. She chose to take a position working for an Indian composer and music conservatory in Chennai, India, before the financial crash last fall. She said being out of the country has shielded her a little from the tough economic climate at home.

Maggart decided recently to stay on for another year at her job in India, and she said now she’s more tentative about searching for a new position in the U.S.

“A year or two ago, I would have scoffed if someone told me that I would have a hard time finding a job, but now I know people — well-educated, kind, hard-working people — who have been having trouble finding and keeping a job that they like,” Maggart wrote in an e-mail. “It makes me nervous to know how strong the competition is in the U.S. job market, and I just have to hope that when I’m ready to come back to the States, I’ll have enough experience under my belt to try and surpass some of the entry-level positions.”

For other graduates, teaching domestically offers that chance at work in a tough economic environment. Teach for America, a program that places recent grads in under-served school districts after a crash course in teacher training, has reported applications are up 40 percent this year. With 17 Middlebury graduates heading into the TFA corps this year, Senior Associate Director for Career Services Don Kjelleren said that the program recruited more students in a single year than any other group has before.

Fellowships at home and abroad aside, the economy has more students considering work they may not have taken before — like temporary office work or internships, which can help a student get a foot in the door in industries that aren’t hiring.

Sonia Epstein, who graduated last weekend from Middlebury with a degree in psychology, is headed to Marfa, Texas — “really in the middle of nowhere,” she joked — for a summer internship at a contemporary art museum. The position will cover her housing and cost of food — and Epstein said that for now, that’s enough for her.

Like Magaril, Epstein is a native New Yorker, though Epstein is hoping to escape the city for a little while. But because she doesn’t know where she wants to be yet, or what career she wants to pursue, she said internships provided an attractive alternative to a long-term commitment with a company. It’s also a way for her to explore the art world at a time when most museums and galleries have frozen hiring.

More generally, Epstein said internships aren’t frowned upon as they once might have been for graduating seniors.

“It gives people an excuse in a way. It feels much more OK not to have an idea (about what comes next),” she said. “Everyone understands. There really aren’t that many jobs. If you have an internship for the summer, people are pretty happy about that.”

The good news for recent grads, according to Theresa Funk at the college’s Career Services Office, is that there are jobs available for the taking. Funk, who works as the senior employer relations coordinator, helps employers recruit recent grads to their companies.

The “Lehman Brothers of the world” aside, Kjelleren and Funk said the college posted 500 entry-level positions for students to consider in their job search — a robust number compared to years past. In fact, Funk said, the number of jobs coming in hasn’t declined significantly — but what is down are application numbers from students.

At Middlebury, and other peer institutions, fewer students have applied to the positions that career services offices are promoting.

“We think that one piece of that is students’ perception of the economy,” said Funk.

On that note, Kjelleren warned recent college grads not to worry too much about the global economy. The bottom line, he said, is to build a network of contacts, search on the “hidden job market” for positions that haven’t been posted yet, and recognize that would-be employees will have to work harder in interviews than ever before. At that point, he said, the big picture isn’t important.

“(Students) just need one good offer,” he said.

 

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