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Originally published May 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 12, 2009 at 9:21 AM

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College seniors find diploma near but job isn't

About 25 percent fewer employers sent recruiters to last month's annual UW spring career fair. Yet it attracted some 4,500 UW students and alumni — the largest turnout in the fair's 13-year history.

Seattle Times staff reporter

To get through the doors of a company like Philips, soon-to-be college graduates better have a good brain, an engineering degree and the stamina to last through interviews that take between four and seven hours to complete.

In past years, up to 20 University of Washington graduates would land jobs at Philips' Bothell campus, which specializes in ultrasound technology.

Right now, the number of openings the company has for this year's college grads is zero.

Blame the economy, said Cédric Chenal, a senior manager with Philips Healthcare. Sales are down and the company has slowed hiring to prevent future layoffs.

Companies like Enterprise Rent-A-Car have also downshifted their hiring, recruiting for internships instead. "Before it was 'grow, grow, grow.' Now we're holding off," said Kevin Madison, an area rental manager with Enterprise.

About 25 percent fewer employers sent recruiters to last month's annual UW spring career fair. Yet it attracted some 4,500 UW students and alumni — the largest turnout in the fair's 13-year history.

Seattle Pacific University's lone career fair of the year drew 30 to 40 percent fewer companies. Seattle University has also seen campus recruiting drop.

Across the country, just 19.7 percent of this year's graduating class who've applied for a job have one, according to a study released last week by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

At the UW job fair, 21-year-old business major Marisa Chang, who was looking to work in the financial sector, said she'd spoken with at least 15 different employers.

"I'm a little bit nervous, but my feeling is that the economy's eventually going to turn around," she said. "I'll do something for a year or two, hopefully then I'll have some experience and find what I'm looking for."

Looking for opportunity

Former UW football player Darin Harris already graduated with a degree in sociology but is still taking classes. Given the economic downturn, he, too, is just looking for an opportunity.

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"The economy's all jacked up. But I think I can manage," Harris said, standing in a line of about a dozen people waiting to speak to a recruiter.

Marina Seregina, a recent UW business-school graduate, only stuck around to speak with representatives at T-Mobile, deciding the other lines were too long.

Seregina said she'd probably be more concerned with her prospects for finding a career-track job were it not for the position she holds now at a bank.

No longer enough

She used to assume getting a degree would be enough, she said.

All the talk of mass layoffs, rising unemployment rates and a stagnant job market has caused many soon-to-be graduates to procrastinate on one final college endeavor — finding work.

Just 59 percent of this year's graduating seniors have started their job search, compared with 64 percent last year at this time, according to the NACE survey. Survey researchers believe it's because students are discouraged by the economic headlines.

The state's unemployment rate in March — 9.2 percent — is a high not seen since May 1984, according to the Employment Security Department.

Nationally, 539,000 jobs were lost in April as the jobless rate reached 8.9 percent.

And as of April, 4.4 percent of people 25 and over who hold at least a bachelor's degree are unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's the highest rate since at least 1992.

In a dour economy, one typical reaction among graduating seniors is to seek further training instead of hitting the job market.

Career counselors at UW, SPU and Seattle University have noticed a definite increase in interest in grad school.

Jacqui Smith-Bates, director of SPU's Career Development Center, says the same thing has happened during other recessions, when students "hide" from the job market.

Still, Smith-Bates anticipates a very busy summer for the Career Development Center. "It's easy to be going into denial when they have finals and papers, but when they actually hit the job market everything changes," she said.

Job counselors at UW's Career Center say headlines about the recession can have a demoralizing effect.

"For a student, their interpretation of that is there aren't any jobs available," said Diane Martin, associate director of employee relations at the center.

Martin says students overlook the fact that some employers are still hiring. There are opportunities in accounting, health care and IT, she said.

UW senior career counselor Patrick Chidsey says convincing students that employers are hiring is an uphill battle. He's been encouraging them to focus on networking — something most career counselors say is the best way to land jobs.

Aside from fine-tuning résumés and developing interview skills, Chidsey likes to offer this advice: "Careers are built over time. Keep dreaming big. Don't compromise."

Maks Goldenshteyn: 206-464-2374 or mgoldenshteyn@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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