Special Reports

Jobs harder to come by for college graduates

Finding a job in the real world is always a challenge for the proverbial liberal-arts major. This year, even college graduates with vocational degrees are struggling to get work.

Faced with stiff competition, many 2009 grads are looking wherever they can. They're ready to move far from home. They're willing to accept less pay. They'll even take a job outside their chosen field.

And for many, even that's not enough. Fewer than 20% of 2009 graduates had accepted a job offer when surveyed between February and April by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That number was 50% in 2007.

Many college career centers say it's too early to know how many of their students have landed jobs. But plenty of them are still looking.

Patrick Blomquist, 22, of Fresno graduated in March with an associate's degree in automotive technology from Fresno City College. He was laid off that same month from his previous job at an automotive shop and has been searching for work ever since.

He estimates he has applied to 30 to 40 auto shops. "They say they'll call you back, and then you never hear anything from them," he said, noting that many places simply aren't hiring.

Out of frustration, he decided to look outside his field. He has turned in between 100 and 150 applications at fast-food restaurants, grocery stores and retail stores like Target.

None has hired him.

"It's dog-eat-dog," he said.

For now, Blomquist is living at home with his parents.

Like many who graduated from city college programs, he got his degree in a program that was designed for an industry that typically has a high demand for workers.

Those graduates once easily nabbed jobs, but are having a harder time lately, said Carole Goldsmith, director of work force development for West Hills Community College's Coalinga and Lemoore campuses.

Programs such as transportation and logistics -- which includes truck and forklift driving and warehouse work -- are particularly slowing down as people buy and ship fewer goods, she said.

"When you look at some of the large plant closures we've had -- Spreckels [sugar plant in Mendota], Gottschalks -- the work force that is in search of jobs is incredibly hyper-competitive right now," she said.

Tight market

Fresno County's jobless rate was 15.4% in May. And national statistics show almost six job seekers for every job opening, according to Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

This year's graduates know they are competing against people with years more experience, many laid off after decades in their field. So new graduates are broadening where they'll look for jobs.

Bryan Cole, 25, of Fresno once thought he'd look for work as a photographer only on the West Coast after graduating from California State University, Fresno, with a degree in photojournalism.

But after discovering how few the opportunities are, he has begun applying across the country.

"I've applied for jobs as far as Maine," he said. "I'm willing to travel, to go anywhere."

He's applied for more than 20 jobs so far. Knowing he's looking for work in an industry that has laid off thousands in recent months has made him more flexible.

"It's been rough," he said. "I realized I had to broaden my scope, just to have more opportunities to find something."

Cole has plenty of experience for a recent grad: He was the photo editor at Fresno State's student newspaper, he photographs weddings, and he does freelance design of fliers and business cards.

Graduates are lowering their salary standards too, said Kathy Bray, president of Denham Resources. The Fresno staffing agency helps companies hire temporary and permanent employees.

"They're willing to work for $9 or $10 an hour," Bray said of recent graduates with bachelor's degrees.

But even that is problematic, she said. Employers often think the applicant will leave when something better comes along, particularly if the person is overqualified for the job, she said.

Those challenges mean more grads may be living at home or otherwise relying on their parents, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Their study found that more than 40% of college seniors expect to need financial help from their parents this year.

Waiting game

Some job seekers are choosing to put their searches on hold.

The study found that 59% of this year's graduates had started looking for a job, down from 64% the previous year.

Part of that is due to busy students focused on finishing their degrees before job hunting, said Rita Bocchinfuso-Cohen, director of career services at Fresno State.

But this year, more graduates may be deliberately waiting out the recession before searching for a job, she said.

Many Fresno State grads already had part-time or full-time jobs while in school to pay bills or support families, she said.

They're not jobs in their chosen career, but many are choosing to stay there until the job outlook improves, Bocchinfuso-Cohen said. While some will search for a job in their field in their spare time, some won't, she said.

"You work as much as you can at your lower-paying survival positions," she said.

Despite the gloomy job market, many college graduates and career center representatives refuse to get depressed. Companies are hiring, they say.

Sometimes a recent college grad is more appealing than other applicants, said Tim Conboy, branch manager of Ultimate Staffing Services in Fresno.

That's particularly true of positions that require up-to-date knowledge of technology, such as data entry or accounting programs, he said.

Companies still have work to do, "so bringing in a young college graduate with the technical skills becomes quite attractive," he said. And "the salary will be quite reasonable."

Job seeker Scipio Mundine, 40, of Fresno is optimistic. He's looking for a job as a maintenance mechanic after earning a certificate in the program from Fresno City College in February.

It's a change from his previous job doing housekeeping at a veterans hospital and the Marine Corps before that.

Mundine has had several interviews and is hoping one of the jobs will come through.

"I know there's people out there with more experience," he said. "Hopefully there's someone who will give me a chance."