With two weeks to go before graduation ceremonies at the University of Washington, even a rare sunny afternoon in Seattle isn't enough to lighten Julia Kusian's mood. Kusian is coming to realize that a B.A. in psychology won't get her very far in this job market. While other students are playing Frisbee or napping on the lawn, Kusian, 21, has been handing out resumes all over town and getting rejected for even simple bartending or hostess positions, which she needs to tide her over while she prepares to apply to grad schools. "If I thought I could get a good job now with a decent salary," she says, "I wouldn't be going through all this."
Only two years ago, even liberal-arts majors like Kusian could expect multiple job offers from dotcoms and maybe even a signing bonus. Not now. College seniors are facing the worst employment market in a decade, often competing for entry-level jobs against laid-off workers with M.B.A.s and years of experience. This year's graduates were playing Little League the last time we had a recession. They picked their majors during the Internet bubble and continue to do most of their job searching online. But they are often finding that not even impressive diplomas and face-to-face networking can coax a job out of a sluggish economy.
Although first-time jobless claims fell slightly last month, economists are expecting that April's 6% unemployment rate--the highest in nearly eight years--will climb to 6.5% as 1.2 million new job seekers come streaming through their college gates and a million or so high school graduates start looking for full-time jobs. Since October, the unemployment rate has been hovering around 12% for workers ages 16 to 24, who are usually the first to be laid off. Diane Miller, 22, a zoology major who graduated in April from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is looking for work in marine biology but observes wistfully, "A lot of people who were going to help me get a job are now having to worry about their own jobs."
Even mechanical-engineering major Elisabeth Rareshide, 22, who graduated last month with an A average from Rice University in Houston, had to scramble to find work. She set out looking for a job in renewable energy but broadened her search almost immediately--and by March had smiled and chatted her way through 30 on-campus interviews and sent out resumes to 50 other companies. "I quickly realized I was not going to get my dream job, and would be lucky to get a job at all," she says. The New Orleans native left last week for a six-month internship in South America to help design oil facilities for TECNA-Ecuador.
With any luck, the job market will be showing signs of life by the time Rareshide returns. But experts say it could take as long as 18 months before many young adults find their place in today's crawling-out-of-a-hole economy--which is being compared with the "jobless recovery" that followed the 1990-91 recession. Help could be on the way: the current rise in productivity and corporate profits should eventually spur hiring. But for now, productivity is surging because companies are squeezing more work out of fewer people, discouraging news for young adults stuck in the back of the hiring line.