Clay Auttonberry assumed earning a bachelor's degree in management and finance would land him a job. He just didn't think it would mean working at the same restaurant that employed him while he went to Delta State University.
After testing the stagnant job market, Auttonberry decided to wait out the economic downturn as the manager of Crawdads, the eatery in Marigold, Miss., where he began as a waiter four years ago.
"There's not a whole lot I can do at the present time, with the war and 9-11 and the corporate scandals and those sort of things," said Auttonberry, who had hoped for a decent sales job.
While the National Association of Colleges and Employers says that job prospects for the country's 1.2 million new graduates will be no worse than they were last year, the class of 2003 is still contending with a market that's weaker than when they were enrolling at school. The association says there was a 36 percent drop in corporate hiring from 2001 to 2002.
Some seniors expect to be underemployed, while others are choosing graduate school over working at a job they consider unsuitable.
"What I try to push is that the economy is cyclical," said NACE spokeswoman Camille Luckenbaugh. "This will pass, as it always does."
Enrollment in graduate schools - which generally drops when the economy is sound - went up by 5 percent in 2002 and is expected to rise even higher this fall, said Peter Syverson, the vice president for research for the Council of Graduate Schools.
And that has brought another set of problems for outgoing seniors.
"For many students, it's a tougher year to get into graduate school because institutions are getting lots and lots of applications," Syverson said.
Rather than return to school for an advanced degree, recent Indiana University journalism school graduate Bennett Haeberly plans to seek part-time employment until a full-time job opens up.
Haeberly believes a positive attitude is key to finding that job.
"There are jobs out there to be had," he said. "It's a matter of getting out there and really persevering over others by taking the initiative to make phone calls and send out e-mails and not be afraid to knock on doors."
College career counselors say that graduates with the best chance of landing a job at a time when the unemployment rate is 10.1 percent for people between the ages of 20 and 24 are those with degrees in engineering and health-related fields - especially nursing. Graduates also are more likely to consider working for the federal government than they once were.
"Four years ago, our students wouldn't even consider going to work for Social Security and all that," said Patricia Gordon, the director of the career development center at California State University-San Bernardino. "Now the federal government is looking real good. It's a reality check."
With a degree in electrical and computer engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute graduate Andrew Keefe accepted one job, turned down two others and is still being contacted by recruiters.
Keefe, now developing ship propulsion systems for a private power technology company, credits both his major and his resume for vaulting him directly from the Massachusetts engineering school to a regular paycheck. As part of an undergraduate project, Keefe worked in Thailand on the world's first fuel-cell powered airplane.
"A lot of people are looking for experience that is not ordinary," he said.
Mike Theobald, the director of career services at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, agreed. He said that summer or school-year internships were a key step to obtaining a full-time employment.
"More and more employers are using internship programs as their recruitment tools," Theobald said. "It's much more effective to make an offer to someone you've seen work for three months as opposed to a series of 30-minute interviews."
In Cleveland, Miss., Delta State career services director Vicki Fioranelli said the prospects are dimmer for students with a diploma in the liberal arts.
"If they're coming in with a psychology degree I advise them, 'Go to cosmetology school if you want a job,"' she said. "We laugh. But I'm halfway joking and halfway serious. They're looking for welders and cosmetologists and massage therapists."
Tips for college students looking for a full-time jobMarilyn Mackes, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, offers the following suggestions to college students looking to enter the job market:
-Check out an employer prior to the job interview: "Each year, employers cite researching the organization as the single most important piece of advice they can offer candidates."
-Before accepting a position, look at other factors beyond salary including the work environment, corporate culture and stability.
-Obtain relevant work experience, preferably in an internship or cooperative studies program: "Many employers turn first to their own interns and co-op students when they have jobs available."
On the Net:
National Association of Colleges and Employers: