College students adjust to get into slim job market

College seniors Larry Heath, Jr., and Jason Gantt have both absorbed one crucial lesson, and it…

Georgia (Feb 8, 2011) — College seniors Larry Heath, Jr., and Jason Gantt have both absorbed one crucial lesson, and it reshaped their educational strategies.

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“It’s the economy,” said Heath, a Georgia State University political science major. “There aren’t enough jobs.”

Heath and Gantt are among a growing number of students who, faced with reports of double-digit unemployment and bleak job prospects, are taking sometimes drastic measures to increase their odds of graduating with meaningful employment.

Some  switch majors; others pursue dual degrees;  others seek opportunities to combine study with work; and some even interrupt an established career to get the degree that once seemed superfluous.

Gantt, 30, who had skipped college, left a job as a network administrator in Palm Beach, Fla., to enroll at Kennesaw State University.

“My brother asked me, ‘What happens if you lose your job?' ” he said. “It would be harder to get another job without a degree. I got scared.”

In addition to pursuing a business degree while at Kennesaw State, he has chased numerous internships.

Heath completed his political science degree early and added a second one –- non-profit management –- that offers more practical skills. He'll complete it this fall.

“I didn’t want to drop my major, because I loved what I did,” he said. “But I came to the conclusion that poli sci is really theoretical, and doesn’t give you the skill set to be competitive for a job.”

In the long run, a college degree is a powerful hedge against joblessness. Among people 25 years and older, the unemployment rate for college graduates was 4.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010, compared to 10.2 percent for people without a college degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nevertheless, many new graduates will struggle to find work. Among people 24 years or younger with a 4-year degree, the unemployment rate for 2010 was 9.4 percent.

“A new college grad has one thing in their favor: education,” said Economic Policy Institute labor economist Heidi Shierholz. However, she said, “in any weak labor market, being young is a strike against you. For a given wage level, there’s a bigger set of people wanting that job, and employers can get somebody with a couple of more years experience.”

That's why career counselors are encouraging students to begin amassing experience now.

“If you can get a chance to job-shadow and spend time in the environment you want to work in, that’s the best,” said Georgia State career counselor Phil Rockwell.

At Kennesaw State, work experience is firmly front and center. As the recession began in 2008, the university began pushing the need for internships and-or job cooperatives to all students of all levels and all majors.

“We’re saying, no matter what your major is, you need to have hands-on experience in the field before you get out of here,” said KSU Career Services Center Director Karen Andrews.

As companies trimmed their workforces, Andrews saw an opening for students to help them fill the resulting gaps. In a “win, win,” she said, employers benefit from a well-educated workforce that gets lower, if any, pay and no benefits, while  students gain experience, references and sometimes a paycheck.

Many students have taken her counsel to heart. In the school’s business department, eight students, including Gantt, founded Iota Chi Epsilon to promote the “Internship and Co-op Experience.”

Kennesaw State senior Jeremy Richardson described himself as a “parking lot-class-parking lot” student before joining Iota Chi Epsilon. “I never did anything else for my education.”

Then the recession struck. “It was terrifying,” Richardson said. “I was going to go to school and spending all my parents’ money and might not have a job."

Since last summer, the management major has had a pair of internships.

KSU reports that nearly 62 percent of its last graduating class had some kind of experiential learning. “And this spring, we’re seeing a 14-percent increase over the same time last spring,” Andrews said.

Emory career counselor Paul Bredderman said he tries to engage students in discussion about their interests and encourages them to use internships as a reality check on their imagined careers.

“There’s a safe environment in college to try internships … and maybe make some mistakes and learn from them,” Bredderman said. “We try to get them moving instead of focusing on fear about what happens in four years.”

The career office also arranges corporate mixers and trains students for networking.

One-third of  the 2010 graduates surveyed by Emory's College of Arts and Sciences reported finding work. That's more than the 23 percent who were still looking for a job but less than the 43 percent who had plans for some type  of graduate studies.

Although Emory University senior philosophy major Thomas Bright admits he does worry about finding a job, he intends to rely on qualities he developed outside the classroom.

“Rather than adding another major such as business, economics, or something else considered ‘practical,’ I have diversified my extracurricular activities and hope to show employers that I am well-rounded,” said the 22-year-old, who runs track and has worked with the campus police department, among other extracurricular pursuits.

Rockwell, the career counselor at GSU,  said that even in this buyer's market, an applicant's personal qualities are not lost on many employers.

“Employers want those soft skills,” like integrity, communication skills, leadership, writing, and critical thinking, he said. “They want to know why you got that poli-sci degree or that sociology degree, and they want a student to be able to say why they want that job.”

Now, with graduation looming, Gantt and Heath are looking at divergent paths.

Gantt landed an internship last fall with Sprint, which he credits for the job Sprint offered him when he graduates this spring.

“That’s the power of the internship,” he said.

Economist Shierholz called it remarkable.

“In any economy, a college grad sitting on a job is lucky,” she said. “So anyone who has an offer in an environment like this is extremely lucky.”

Heath learned early about internships, working for U.S. Rep. David Scott while in high school, then interning in college in the State Legislature.

He doesn't have a job lined up, however.

“I’m not sure what will happen," he said, "so I’m looking toward graduate school.”



A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its approximately 38,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status, and one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.

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