In recession, optimistic college graduates turn down jobs: NYT

Last Updated: Saturday, July 25, 2009 - 11:22

New York: It has been two months since Diana Parsons graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a liberal arts degree that cost about $100,000, and she has still not found a full-time job. She has returned to Milwaukee, where she is living with her parents and occasionally waiting tables at a restaurant owned by a friend of her mother.
Another hard-luck case in a miserable economy? Not exactly. Ms. Parsons, 21, is jobless by choice. She turned down one $23,000-a-year offer to become a research assistant at a magazine because she did not want to move to Chicago and another because she did not want to work nights.

“I’m not really worried,” she said. “When the right thing comes along, I’ll know it.”

Ms. Parsons is far from the only member of the class of 2009 who is picky when it comes to employers. Job recruiters may be bypassing university campuses in droves and the unemployment rate may be at its highest point in decades, but college career advisers are noticing that many recent graduates do not seem to comprehend the challenging economic world they have just entered.

“I don’t think the students understand, I really don’t, but come September, October, when they still don’t have jobs, they’re going to be panicky,” said Clarice Wilsey, a career counselor at the University of Oregon, where just 55 employers came to a recent job fair, down from nearly 90 the year before.

Ms. Wilsey and others in her field said part of the problem stemmed from the fact that the latest graduates had spent most of their college years in a booming economy that went suddenly cold in their final academic year.

Until recently, students like Ms. Parsons had every reason to expect a bounty of high-paying career opportunities, said Manny Contomanolis, president of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, an organization for career counselors that met last month in Las Vegas to ponder how to help themselves and their students cope with the souring economy.

“If you went back to September and October, most campuses were reporting record recruiting activity,” Mr. Contomanolis said. “It was really in the November time frame that things really started manifesting themselves. A lot of students haven’t gone through a full recruiting cycle yet.”

Some students, like Ms. Parsons, say they can afford to hold out a while. So does Robert Sherman, a finance major at Syracuse University who rejected a $50,000-a-year job as head of technology for a consulting company because he did not get a good vibe from his potential bosses. Instead, he said, he is “doing odd jobs to support myself, and I’m O.K. with that” while he tries to get two technology companies of his own off the ground.

“I’m definitely seeing a lot of the older generation saying, ‘Oh, it’s so awful,’ but my generation isn’t getting as depressed and uptight about it,” said Mr. Sherman, who admitted he and his parents had deliberated for a week before he turned down the offer. “We’re working within the bounds of the situation. The economy will rebound.”

Some praise that approach. Steven Rothberg, founder of the online job board CollegeRecruiter.com, noted that most seniors were not compelled by mortgages or other expenses to grab just any position at whatever salary is offered. To do so could haunt them later when the economy improves, he said.

“A lot of times, the offer is simply not acceptable to them, the compensation is far beneath where it should be, the job does not line up with their career interest,” Mr. Rothberg said. “If they take it, they’re going to be stuck with that career path and compensation level for years to come.”

The phenomenon of students’ turning down offers despite the economic conditions is so pervasive that the president of the University of Connecticut, Michael J. Hogan, addressed it in his commencement speech in May.

“My first word of advice is this: Say yes,” Mr. Hogan urged the graduates when it came to prospective employers. “In fact, say yes as often as you can. Saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to new experiences, and new experiences will lead you to knowledge and wisdom. Yes is for young people, and an attitude of yes is how you will be able to go forward in these uncertain times.”

That is how Anthony Scruggs, 23, sees it, too. Mr. Scruggs recently graduated from the University of Arkansas and is moving home to Houston to take a $30,000-a-year job as a self-described “paper pusher” with a real estate development firm, the only offer he received in seven months of searching.

“It kind of took me by surprise because you just assume when you’re in college that when you graduate you’re going to get the job, and here I am,” Mr. Scruggs said. “I’m 23 years old, and I’m going to move back in with my parents. I kind of had to rearrange the game plan for sure.”

Career counselors like Ms. Wilsey wish more students saw it that way. She is bracing for a busy summer as new graduates finally face up to the tough market and turn to her for help.

“There are fewer successes, but I have to keep a positive attitude because if I don’t, then I’ll get discouraged, and then that’ll discourage the students,” Ms. Wilsey said. “I’ve got to say: ‘Here’s what you have to do, here’s how I can support you — yeah, it’s going to be tough, but I’m going to support you.’ ”



First Published: Saturday, July 25, 2009 - 11:22

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