New college grads are getting the message about how tough it is to find jobs these days.
They're starting job searches earlier, looking outside their fields and going to grad school to become more marketable.
All that work appears to be paying off: Almost 25% of 2010 college seniors who started their job hunt before graduation found employment by the time they finished school -- up from about 20% last year, according to a survey by the Bethlehem, Pa.-based National Association of Colleges and Employers, a nonprofit organization.
That's still a far cry from 2007, when the economy was booming and 51% found jobs before graduation.
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There are glimmers of hope. For example, employers plan to hire about 5% more new college graduates this year than last year, according to an NACE survey. But students increasingly are waking up to the realities of the job market, said Edwin Koc, the organization's research director.
"One of the biggest reasons that more have a job [this year] is that they tended to be more flexible in their approach. They're more willing to accept an offer than students were last year," Koc said.
The change since last year is obvious, he said.
"The extent of the economic decline had not sunk into last year's class" at the time of the survey, he said.
For Stacy Heaton of Visalia, the tough job market means applying for jobs outside her field barely a month after she graduated from Fresno State.
"I'm not too picky at this point," said Heaton, who is looking for a new career after raising three step-children and working part time while going to school for the past six years.
Heaton has been job hunting for about half a year, hoping her bachelor's degree in communications would land her a marketing job. She has a job now training insurance agents, but wants to advance in her chosen career. After not getting a single interview, she started applying to jobs outside her field, including in public relations and management.
"There's not a lot out there right now," she said. "You really have to depend on your social networks to try to find something, and even then there's not a lot out there."
A high unemployment rate contributes to the difficulty new grads face. Fresno County had a 16.9% unemployment rate in April -- the most recent month data was available -- compared with 12.6% statewide and 9.9% nationally. It's harder for a grad to find a job in the Central Valley than elsewhere in the country, Koc said.
Students have learned this and are starting their job searches earlier this year, said Rita Bocchinfuso-Cohen, director of career services at Fresno State.
In past years, she said, it was more typical to wait until after graduation.
Students also realize they're competing against laid-off workers and others with more experience, said Fresno City College dean of work force development Natalie Culver-Dockins.
"We're seeing young people taking the job market a lot more seriously. They're really taking their résumés very seriously ... because they realize the competition is a lot tougher," she said.
Nationally, a greater percentage of students are headed to graduate school this year -- 27.4% compared to 25.6% last year, according to NACE. This helps them avoid the job market altogether while better preparing themselves when they eventually look for a job.
Diana Diaz, 21, of Lompoc hadn't originally planned on grad school, but decided to pursue it after learning through job fairs how difficult it would be to find a job with her Fresno State bachelor's in political science and Chicano studies.
"I realized I probably wouldn't be able to find a job right away. I figured I might as well just continue on," she said.
She's starting her master's degree in public administration at Fresno State this fall, which she says will make it easier to get a government- or policy-related job.
"Maybe in two or three years ... I'll look a little bit more attractive than someone else with a similar undergrad degree," she said.
Other students are even more overwhelmed by the bleak job market, said Bocchinfuso-Cohen. She said that she was surprised by how few students are visiting the career center this summer. But she thinks she knows why that's happening.
"They have a perception that the market is so bad, they don't even want to compete," Bocchinfuso-Cohen said. "This is a perfect excuse to say, 'Well ... I can stay in transition for a while,' and have that be a plausible reason to give your parents or your family."
Other students may be content to hang on to the job they had while going through school, she said.
Many students who land jobs in their field consider themselves fortunate.
Fresno State grad Kristen Gardner, 26, applied for just two jobs and landed one of them. She now helps process orders and ship dry milk for Dairy America in Fresno, which is exactly the type of job she hoped to land with her bachelor's in business administration.
She applied for the job June 10 and was working at it a week later. She knows many students didn't have it as easy and has friends who have been searching unsuccessfully for seven months.
"I figured I wouldn't find anything for several months," she said. "This was very unexpected."
Bocchinfuso-Cohen tells job hunters not to get too overwhelmed by bad news.
"Keep in mind that you're one person looking for one job," she said. "Your experience can be very different from the masses."