The thousands of college students graduating this weekend are entering a job market that is starting to show signs of recovery.
But just barely.
Unemployment in the state was 11.1 percent in March - higher than the 10.9 percent students faced last May. Also in March, the most recent month for which data are available, 507,000 people were looking for work in the state. Many are competing for the same jobs as the newly minted grads.
As the bands tune up for "Pomp & Circumstance," many students who have been job hunting for months are rethinking their careers, applying to graduate school and turning to their backup plans.
For Mark Rothrock, that's the Marines.
The UNC senior graduates this weekend with degrees in U.S. history and religious studies and plans to enlist in January. Until then, he needs a job to pay the bills so he won't have to move back in with his parents in Winston-Salem.
"Everyone tells you to go to school and get your degree and get a job, and now I can't even get a retail job," said Rothrock, 21.
"We're over-educated for a lot of jobs, and we're under-educated for a lot of jobs, which leaves us just stuck in the middle."
But if Rothrock and other graduates look, there are positive signs in the job market, said John Challenger, a workplace analyst with Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago.
"It's tough out there, but it does feel like the dam's breaking a little bit," he said. "It's a lot better for this year's grads than it was last year. There's a lot more interviewing going on, and there's a lot more optimism."
Sectors that are showing improvement include accounting, sales and jobs with specific skills such as those in engineering, he said. Areas that are still depressed include the usual suspects: real estate, manufacturing and financial services.
Brendalee McCarthy, director of career and internship development for the office of undergraduate programs at N.C. State University's College of Management, points to a survey of the school's May 2009 graduating class as a sign of a better market. Fifty-four percent of the graduates responded to the survey. Of those grads who had applied for four or more jobs, 84 percent had job offers at graduation. Six months later 91 percent were employed.
She doesn't have numbers for this year's class but said that she was encouraged by stepped up recruitment from smaller and midsized companies.
Employers may be more strategic, but they are hiring, said Ray Angle, director of University Career Services at UNC.
"I have had more employers say I'm not recruiting for full-time jobs; I'm just recruiting interns. Internships can then be converted into full-time jobs. It's a more cautious way of hiring."
The fact that professionals like Angle are optimistic is good news for seniors like Courtney Thomas, 21, who is graduating this weekend from Appalachian State University with degrees in marketing and business administration.
While the job search is tough, Thomas said she's optimistic something will come along.
"After I had two interviews that didn't go anywhere, I felt really discouraged, but now I've seen there are companies that are willing to hire, and you have to find the right ones. There is work out there. You just have to find it."
Lower starting pay
Many companies are offering internships or extended training opportunities as a way to evaluate talented students while not hiring them full time, McCarthy said.
"Employers are still hiring," she said. "The salaries are lower, and they're not extending the entry level positions at the rate that they were a year ago."
Companies say they are not against hiring students straight out of school, especially those they've worked with in the past.
At 919 Marketing in Holly Springs, former intern Katy Millberg was offered a full-time position upon her graduation from UNC this weekend.
Her supervisor, Sue Yannello, said attitude is everything, and sometimes students are better new hires than people who have been in the workplace for several years.
"You can teach an enthusiastic student," she said, "versus someone who's been doing it forever and has their mind set."
And, of course, there are still success stories.
Jim Crawford, 22, secured a job offer for an analyst position with Credit Suisse in Research Triangle Park in November, even though he won't graduate from N.C. State until next weekend. His degree is in business administration.
Crawford said he thinks part of his good fortune came from work experience. He's had an internship or other work every summer since his freshman year. He also credits networking.
"In my freshman internship, I saw the financial crisis unravel," he said. "Once I knew the market was going into a recession, and that it might last a few years, I worked very hard to [situate] myself."
Many of Crawford's friends are now tapping into his networking and job-seeking expertise, asking for help with résumés and their own job searches. He advises them to set their own goals for their first job and to be able to clearly articulate what they would like in a position.
"It's kind of ironic, but that's the very thing that makes you stand out," he said.
At St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, Nichole Lewis, urges students to think more broadly when networking. Family members can be a good source of job tips.
"Your Aunt Beth works somewhere," said Lewis, who is director of professional and staff development with the college's Belk Professional Development Center. "But you don't think of Aunt Beth as part of your network."
She points out that there are jobs available within state and federal government, and with financial services companies. They're looking for flexible job candidates who can multitask, show leadership and communicate well.
"Companies have a strategy and want people who can maybe break away from what they learn in a book," Lewis said.
Moving to Raleigh
Students have strategies as well. Zack Bynum has been looking for a job in the Triangle since October. He will graduate next weekend from Wake Forest University with a degree in economics.
"I've been looking in real estate and finance, which are probably two of the most rough hit sectors of the economy right now," he said.
If no job materializes in a week, said Bynum, 22, he will move to the Raleigh area anyway, live off his savings for a few months and keep looking.
"It's not great anywhere, but I feel like Raleigh has had tremendous growth and will continue to experience it," he said. "I honestly believe it will be one of the best places to find a job when the economy comes back."
Other students are exploring different options.
For instance, many students will go on to graduate school. Last May, 17 percent of the 565 graduating students from N.C. State's College of Management were planning to go to graduate school instead of looking for a job, McCarthy said. That was a drastic increase from the 7 percent headed for grad school in May 2008.
Rise of volunteerism
Enrollment of college graduates in volunteer groups like AmeriCorps also is up.
In May 2009, AmeriCorps reported 14,266 volunteers who were college graduates, compared with 13,790 in May 2008. Many graduates are socially conscious, and volunteering is a way to get work experience while they look for jobs.
"It's not only a question of kids going into these new fields because there are no jobs, but a question of a shift in the way kids are thinking," said Ashley Etienne of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees volunteer organizations including AmeriCorps.
Tiffany Langley graduated from N.C. State in December with a degree in communications, but so far she's been paying the bills busing tables at the Herons restaurant in the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary.
She insisted on having two days a week to volunteer at the Triangle American Red Cross, where she interned during college.
"I needed a full-time job so I could pay my rent," said Langley, 23. "But I still send my résumé out every week."
At the Red Cross, Langley issues press releases and organizes events, which she said helps her gain work experience. And, "for me, it makes me feel like what I do has a purpose behind it. I feel like what I do affects people more."
But for some, the key strategy is to hang on and hope.
Heather Finch graduated from Peace College in Raleigh in December with a degree in communications. Since then the 22-year-old has applied for more than 100 jobs and says she only even hears back from about a quarter of the companies.
"What's scary the most is I don't have a bad résumé," she said. "I've worked really hard in college to have really good internships and recommendations and references."
Until she finds a position, Finch is living off of savings, getting health care through her parents' plan and taking any odd jobs she can, including baby-sitting.
She even works sometimes at a dance studio in Wilson - something that she says doesn't make her any money after paying for gas but, "when I've had interviews, it looks better to be doing something."
And, for students like Rothrock who have yet to find work, there are worse things than moving home for a few months.
Rothrock said his job search woes will make a convenient excuse if he does have to live with his folks.
"I can tell them I'm overqualified to take the trash out," he said.
Staff writer Eric Ferreri contributed to this report.
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