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War blurs cloudy U.S. college job market

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NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Former President Bill Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, is one of the lucky ones. She has secured a six-figure salary with consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in New York after she completes her studies at Oxford University in England.

But for most other U.S. graduates, especially those with massive student loans to pay off, the high-paying professional position will have to remain a dream for a while as they enter one of the most difficult job markets in almost a decade.

The reality of available jobs in a setting of a slack economy, fear of terrorism and war in Iraq means that many college graduates this spring are looking at stocking supermarket shelves, waiting tables or enlisting in the military.

The surging economy of the dot-com glory years in the 1990s is long gone, as Jeremy Hiers can testify. The senior at Thomas More College in Kentucky majored in computer science and since January has sent out more than 100 resumes -- without a single response to date.

"It looks like ever since the war started, people stopped hiring," he said. "If I can't get a job, I will consider changing my career, or try the military as an option."

Hiers is not alone. Employers nationally planned to hire about 4 percent fewer new college graduates, according to a survey last August by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. A follow-up survey showed that a third of them planned to cut back even more on college hires.

'Scary transition'

"I only know one person who has any idea what they will be doing next year -- and that's because he's going to work at his aunt's law firm," said Alexander James, who graduates next month from Connecticut College with a degree in English.

"It's naturally a very scary transition from school to work. But now we are told we're going into an unstable situation. ... It's disheartening," he said.

In March, the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds was 8.9 percent, the second highest in the last six years, according to Labor Department statistics.

Such a grim job market means college graduates who spurned food service and supermarket jobs in the boom years are now willing to trade down. Some are waiting tables, performing as clowns at parties, or rummaging in flea markets for valuables they can resell online for a profit, said Steven Rothberg, president of Minneapolis-based college employment Web site

"We are back to a labor market like we had several decades ago, when students are thankful to have odd jobs upon graduation even if it barely pays their bills and is not in their chosen career path," he said.

"Some students are really burdened by student loans, the bills are looming," said John Challenger, chief executive at career consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Grace Chon, a senior at Pennsylvania State University, said her friend, who graduated last year with a teaching degree, cannot find a teaching job and had to work as a department store cashier and hotel clerk. Chon will temporarily avoid the dismal market by heading directly to graduate school.

For students who are fortunate enough to land jobs, the pay is much less than in the boom years. Alex Lee, an engineering major who just graduated from Stanford University, said he had been looking for investment banking or consulting jobs, which could start at $100,000, but only got one job offer with half that salary from a brokerage firm.

New and unproven

College graduates face an uphill battle against people who have several years experience, as employers, with cost-cutting in mind, want someone who needs little or no training.

"Fewer companies will take the step in this market to hire someone new, especially unproven new grads," said Brad Karsh, chief executive of JobBound, a Chicago job search company.

But that doesn't mean it is easier for more experienced MBA students, because they somehow price themselves out of the entry-level market, recruiters say.

New York University's Stern Business School said that, in the past, an elite group of around 30 to 35 companies would snap up about 200 students, or half the entire class; now companies are hiring in smaller numbers and making decisions later in the year.

But as a silver lining for the war cloud, some recruiters say the government and military are hiring aggressively. said the Central Intelligence Agency had 80 to 90 job postings on its Web site, ranging from analysts to field operations positions.

DePaul University in Chicago also noted that a number of employers are hiring people to fill posts vacated by their reservists who had been called up to active military duty.

New Jersey Institute of Technology said its students, who greatly favored the telecom industry and dot-com companies in the past, are now snatching up government jobs because there are more engineering and computer jobs out there.

But the competition for those jobs has also grown more fierce. Almost 30 percent of the respondents polled by Chester, Pennsylvania-based Educational Directories said they are more interested in government or military jobs.

"I went to business school in the early '90s," said Gary Fraser, assistant dean of the career services office at NYU's Stern School. "If history repeats itself, it should get better after the war."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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