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Recent college grads need perseverance in tough market

With unemployment still hovering in double digits, December graduates are facing one of the grimmest job environments in decades. They will need fortitude, college job counselors say.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Baby, it's cold out there. And we're not just talking about the weather.

At the University of California, Davis, and California State University, Sacramento, where hundreds of graduates picked up diplomas this month, it's a decidedly chilly job climate.

With unemployment still hovering in double digits, December graduates are facing one of the grimmest job environments in decades. They will need fortitude, college job counselors say.

"I constantly remind students: They only need one job," said career adviser Marcie Kirk-Holland with the UCD Internship and Career Center. "There may not be as many offers out there, but you only need to find one."

But no one's saying it isn't tough out there. "It's a very soft market ... the toughest I've seen in 27 years," said Eva Gabbe of the CSUS Career Center. "We've been through recessions, but it would hit only one sector. But this one's hit all of them."

For the 2,600 CSUS and 900 UCD students who graduated this month, there are glimmers of hope.

"There's still no massive movement to increase (college student) hiring, but there's a slight shift. Each month has been slightly better than the previous month," said Edwin Koc with the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

An estimated 33 percent of employers surveyed in December, according to Koc, said they expect to hire more college graduates in the next quarter. That's up from 17 percent in August.

"This is first time I've seen more employers say they're going to increase, rather than decrease, hiring since August 2008," Koc said.

One of those hiring is Triage Consulting Group, a San Francisco-based health care consulting company. "We hire young, bright minds straight out of college," said principal Andy Stemmler. "They are very trainable, very motivated and incredibly willing to learn."

Triage, which hires mostly business and economics majors, is actually upping its 2010 hiring. With health care a relatively robust job sector, Stemmler said Triage is recruiting 75 or 80 students next year, compared with 70 this year.

But that's not much consolation for the many young people with freshly printed diplomas and no jobs.

For the iPhone generation, accustomed to following a scripted path through school, finding a job takes some new thinking, say career experts. "It's a very messy, unclear system," said Duncan Mathison, a San Diego career consultant and co-author of "Unlock the Hidden Job Market."

This crop of graduates may be Web-savvy and accustomed to social networking online, but those connections may be ill-suited for finding jobs, he said. "What do you do when your network is the same as you: unemployed?"

Yet the holidays, when friends and family are gathering, can be an ideal environment for getting a jump on jobs, he said. Mathison recommends the "100-person rule," which means creating a list of 100 people you want to contact.

And don't overlook anyone. "It can even be your uncle's poker group," he said. "That seed you plant today can pay off two months from now."

Another short-term solution is temp work at a staffing agency. Far from a dead end, it can plump up a resume and help define your career path, UCD's Kirk-Holland said.

"By going on placements in a lot of different industries and working in different corporate cultures, they can see what kind of career resonates with them," she said.

More so than in previous years, new graduates need to be willing to take jobs that aren't their ideal fresh-from-college posts, but are the first rung up the ladder.

Instead of getting hired as a staff accountant, for instance, many CSUS accounting majors are starting in training-level positions, such as accounts receivable/payable, Gabbe said.

Plenty of history, sociology, psychology and English majors are "jumping in wherever they can," including jobs in insurance claims and underwriting departments. "Their communication and writing skills, organizational abilities and computer (savvy) can lend themselves to any (position)," said Gabbe.

Some December grads are getting hired, though. One of the lucky ones is Brian Henrikson, a 23-year-old December graduate from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. The industrial engineering major has two job offers, including a scheduling supervisor position at Diamond Foods Inc. in Stockton.

"I was open to moving anywhere and doing anything that was applicable to my major," said the Sacramentan, who's now home for the holidays. "It may not be your first choice, but you have to be open to doing anything with that first job. Some of my friends who graduated in June are still looking."

Sometimes it takes pushing yourself forward. Kathryn McDaniel, 23, graduated earlier this year from UCD with a double major in English and biology. After months of job searching, she applied for a receptionist position at the Glenn County Office of Education, near her hometown in Orland.

"When I didn't hear back, I called HR. They said, 'Oh, you're overqualified,'" McDaniel said. But the staffer put her into another pool of candidates for a part-time job as a records clerk for a Glenn County foster youth program.

"During my interview, I pulled out my college experiences," such as dorm resident adviser and a math-and-science camp counselor. That led to a second part-time job offer as a high school lab technician for chemistry and biology classes. As of November, McDaniel is happily working both jobs.

Her advice to fellow 2009 grads: When you're interviewing, ask about other opportunities. Talk about your job-related college experiences. And do your homework. In her case, she went online and researched the foster youth program ahead of time, so she could discuss it confidently during the interview.

And if you don't hear back, get through to a person, she advised. "You need to have a human contact. With so many online applications, you can get lost in the muddle."

Students need to remember that employer rejections are inevitable "but don't let it keep you from continuing to search," said UCD's Kirk-Holland. "Every grad is anxious, and that's been true even when the economy's the best it's ever been. Take a job. Even if it's not what everyone wants, it's better than sitting at home."

(c) 2009, Sacramento Bee

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.