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Hiring up for new graduates, but recent classes may never catch up

It's been a month of bright hopes and brave speeches for the newly varnished tossing their mortarboards into the air at college graduations in the region.

Kari Randall, 25, who graduated in 2008, says her peers are the generation without hope. "It's the first time in American history where we have nowhere to go." (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
Kari Randall, 25, who graduated in 2008, says her peers are the generation without hope. "It's the first time in American history where we have nowhere to go." (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)Read more

It's been a month of bright hopes and brave speeches for the newly varnished tossing their mortarboards into the air at college graduations in the region.

And no wonder.

After several slow years, employers are actively recruiting on campuses again, and hiring is up 19.3 percent for 2011 college graduates compared to the Class of 2010, according to surveys by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a research group in Bethlehem.

Salaries are also up 5.9 percent over last year, to an average $50,462, NACE reported.

The numbers look good, but they are being measured against several years of minimal hiring over the course of a historic recession.

Those who graduated two to four years ago are already paying the penalties for the weak hiring environment that began with the economic collapse in 2007. Barely more than half of them hold full-time jobs, and even fewer have jobs in their fields.

Moreover, they are likely to be compromised for years to come, including being overtaken in the job market by the Class of 2011.

Among the newly hired from that class is Joseph Fraim Kressler of Villanova University. The accounting major starts working for PricewaterhouseCoopers L.L.P. in Center City in September. All but three of his 136 fellow accounting-major classmates have had offers.

"As much as I love golfing all summer, I'm ready to take the next step and actually start making some money," said Kressler, of Bloomsburg, Pa., who will move to an apartment in Manayunk.

"Life is better for this year's class, but it's not universally better," said Ed Koc, NACE's research director.

Nearly every sector is looking to hire recent graduates, with hiring up 97.1 percent for engineers, NACE reports, though with a limited number of engineering firms responding.

Manufacturing hiring is up by double digits in categories such as food, pharmaceuticals, and computers. Construction businesses are looking for college graduates, as are utilities and oil- and gas-extraction companies.

"It's improved if you are looking at a career-oriented major, especially if it is in computer sciences," Koc said.

But prospects remain less thrilling for liberal arts and education majors, who tend to rely on public-sector jobs. Governments are hiring 25 percent fewer graduates than they did a year ago.

"For education majors, it's the worst I've ever seen," Koc said. "Only 19 percent even got offers.

"I thought last year was the worst it could be, when only 22 percent got offers. I didn't think we could exceed that, but we did."

Koc said prospects should improve if the private sector keeps adding jobs.

"Then you are going to see the revenue coffers for state government [increase], and some of the school districts will be able to hire again," he said. "They do have to replace the teachers who are going to be leaving the system."

All the good news for 2011 grads masks the discouraging prospects for young people who had the misfortune to graduate a few years earlier.

"They are calling us the generation without hope," Kari Randall said as she shopped her resumé around at a job fair for recent college graduates at Temple University last week. "I agree with that."

Randall graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2008 with a degree in journalism. "For the first time in American history, we have nowhere to go," she said.

Randall and her classmates are not only competing against this May's graduates for jobs but also against more seasoned unemployed workers willing to take jobs with less pay and less scope to stay in the labor market.

Randall and the others are just starting out, but they face lasting consequences.

Companies, Koc said, set aside entry-level slots for that year's college graduates. Graduates from the Classes of 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 land in the mix with job seekers of all ages, but they don't have enough experience to compete.

"The studies indicate it will take at least 10 years [for conditions to improve for those college graduates], or they may never fully recover from the bad start they've had in the economy," Koc said.

Randall worked for two years at a small-town newspaper while she was in college but has yet to land a permanent job in her field.

She works part time as a church receptionist, tries to land freelance writing gigs, and relies on her faith that God has a plan for her.

Nathaniel Cooper graduated from Howard University in 2010 with a degree in economics. He lives with his parents in Sicklerville and works a customer-service job that does not use his skills.

He'd like to go into management or human resources, which is why he was at Campus Philly's Opportunity Fair at Temple last week. "The economy is tough," he said. "There are no jobs for us."

Indeed, of all those who graduated between 2006 and 2010, barely half are working full time, and three in 10 have jobs that have little to do with their education, according to a study released this month by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

Many made significant concessions to get jobs - working for less money, below their education level, outside their career interests, and without benefits.

"Overall, the big picture is that the entire labor market is a buyers' market," said Carl Van Horn, co-author of the study and director of the Heldrich Center.

"There is a large group waiting of talented people who have graduated in the last three or four years, and many of them have not found full-time jobs," he said.

"Even though the economy is picking up, it's not picking up at a pace that can absorb all those jobs."

According to the Rutgers study:

Four of 10 took more than six months to find a job, and only 56 percent of 2010 graduates had found one by April.

Four in 10 took jobs that did not require a degree.

Students who entered the job market in 2009 and 2010 earned 10 percent less than 2006 and 2007 graduates. Though one in six believes he or she will have more financial success than the previous generation, 56 percent expect to have less success.

Parents are propping up their children all the way through the young people's 20s. Of those ages 26 to 29, one in six either lives with parents or gets help with rent or a mortgage.

As these young people struggle to find their place, they remain a drag on an economy barely limping into recovery, Van Horn said.

They should, he said, be in the acquisition phase of their lives - buying cars, furniture, and homes, in turn helping to revive the economy. Instead, they are jobless, saddled with debt, and relying on their parents.

"One of the ways this ripples through the economy is purchasing power," he said. "They have less purchasing power."