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Are 2013 local college grads facing an apocalyptic job market?

For Weekly SurgeJanuary 2, 2013 

If you’re reading this, you somehow managed to duck-and-cover long enough to make it through the End of the World. Congratulations. You’re not dead, a zombie, or cowering in a bunker.

For many college seniors due to graduate in the class of 2013, the End of the World might have come as a welcomed relief, freeing them from the grueling quest of finding employment in a struggling economy. However, as Dec. 22 rolled around, the euphoria of survival turned into the panic of living.

In some parts of South Carolina, where unemployment rates were up to 16.6 percent in October, real life may seem much like a post-Apocalyptic scene. Once thriving businesses are now boarded-up and abandoned, and the unemployed masses roam the streets like herds of zombies looking for enough scratch to make rent.

The economic slump affected all segments of the workforce, but hardest hit are graduates trying to enter a job market that is barely breathing. The Pew Research Center released a survey last year that showed only 54 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 had jobs – the lowest employment rate for this age bracket since tracking began more than 60 years ago.

According to the Department of Labor, 146,000 jobs were added in November. Compare that to the nearly 1.8 million students that The National Center for Education Statistics expects to graduate in 2013 with bachelor’s degrees. They will be competing against other recent graduates for these jobs, many whom are either unemployed, or underemployed.

Just in case things didn’t sound bad enough, in 2011, 53.6 percent of graduates with bachelor’s degrees younger than 25 were jobless or underemployed. Additionally, recently released data showed that two-thirds of graduates from the class of 2011 held student loan debt, with an average of $26,600 per student. If trends continue, 2013 graduates may be approaching an average of $30,000 in student loan debt.

The world may not have ended, but for 2013 graduates facing bleak job prospects and mountains of student loan debt, they might as well have walked into the Thunderdome.

Is it time to abandon all hope? Not quite yet.

Mixed signals

“The economy continues to provide mixed signals about what lies ahead in 2013,” says Scott Baier, Associate Professor of Economics at Clemson University. “Some forecasters have projected income growth to be around 3 percent. While this is possible, there are some headwinds that may result in slower economic growth.”

It may be the mom-and-pop type businesses that lead the recovery, according to the former Horry County Council Chairman.

“Small businesses are the drivers of job growth, not only in the 7th District but throughout the United States,” says U.S. Congressman Tom Rice (R), who now represents the Grand Strand in Washington, D.C. However, Rice says there is a lot of uncertainty in the market that is hurting growth. “The biggest threat to job creation that I hear from small businesses is the uncertainty around what their true costs will be for hiring a new employee…We need to create an environment that encourages job growth, not stifles it.”

One such organization on the front lines of fostering a positive business climate for the Grand Strand is the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. And, the chamber has good news for local graduates who are looking to stay in the area.

“We conduct an annual small business member survey each year to help gauge how member businesses are doing, what their plans are for the coming year, etc.” says Chamber Public Relations Coordinator Nora Hembree Battle. “When it came to staffing needs in 2013… nearly 25 percent said they anticipated their staffing would increase (full-time and part-time positions).”

“The majority of businesses surveyed said they felt the Myrtle Beach area was heading in the right direction when thinking about the current path of the economy,” notes Battle. “But, the majority also responded that they felt the United States was headed in the wrong direction with regards to the current path of the economy.”

“Either way, there is still definite work to be done,” Battle adds.

However, Baier predicts the national employment conditions should continue to improve throughout 2013, but growth will be modest, and unemployment will likely remain elevated.

Technical and tangible

Baier says the economic outlook for college graduates is much harder to assess, and unemployment levels for recent grads is likely to be “job and occupation specific,” with the most growth seen in the health services, business services, and energy sectors.

This follows the same trends seen by Melissa Braunstein, Placement Coordinator for Coastal Carolina University’s Career Services Center. “Typically those students who have a technical knowledge coming out of school tend to fair better in the job market,” says Braunstein. They’re bringing something tangible to the market. Accounting majors, finance, computer science – they have a technical skill they’re coming to the field with.”

Students in majors with “soft skills” – such as English, political science, and history – are having a harder time because there isn’t necessarily a transferable skill, or even job position, in which they have experience. Unfortunately, not all majors are created equally.

So does this mean technical school graduates are having an easier time than their peers at four-year institutions? The South Dakota School of Mines & Technology made headlines last September when PayScale Inc. released a report detailing that its new graduates had a better median salary ($56,700) than that of Harvard ($54,100) -- and those students paid nearly four times less in tuition. Of course, the specific market conditions for mining are a major factor in this boom, but April Garner, Career Resource Center Coordinator at Horry Georgetown Technical College (HGTC), says she is noticing a similar trend.

“We kind of have a good thing going in that it is a technical college,” says Garner. “Employers are saying, ‘When I connect with a technical college, I feel like I’m getting a candidate who has more hands-on experience, on-the-job-training, and things of that nature.’”

Garner says HGTC is successful in placing students into jobs because the educational dynamic in a technical school affords students hands-on opportunities to gain skills in their field before they graduate. According to Garner, HGTC has a job placement rate of approximately 90 percent, with particular success in the Myrtle Beach area. As a part of their graduation requirements, students are interning with companies in the area, and often these internships turn into full-time jobs.

However, much as it is with traditional four-year students, job placement for technical college graduates follows hand-in-hand with the industries that are hiring. And, for those graduates who are having a tough time finding a job, many are choosing a backup-up plan called “graduate school.” In fact, approximately one-third of students go to graduate school within a year of finishing their undergrad work. A survey of December 2012 graduates at CCU showed that 34 percent were heading that route. Though, this route also has its own set of problems: more debt, more school, and still no guarantee of employment after graduating.

Gearing up for the hunt

Without a doubt, the down economy has made an impact on the way all graduates find a job. “The Class of 2013 is essentially walking into…a climate where employers are extremely particular about who they want to recruit for jobs that are out there,” says HGTC’s Garner. “They’re walking into a climate where they’re going to have to work harder to identify jobs.”

“It’s kind of scary,” says Ashley Greene, a senior at CCU majoring in Psychology. “I’m actually thinking about doing the military because of the lack of jobs.” Greene says that by joining the military, she can help pay back student loans accrued at CCU, and possibly attend graduate school with the military’s financial assistance.

She has already started looking for jobs, and is looking to do an internship before graduating in May. However, even internships are highly competitive among students. “I still haven’t gotten one, but I’ve started,” notes Greene. “When you register for classes, they have three or four you can do through the school, but those fill up fast.”

“It’s just…I don’t know,” says Greene, thinking of the uncertainty and fear of 2013 job prospects. “It’s hard to say what I’ll do if the military doesn’t work out.”

Other students are more optimistic.

Avery Kelly, a CCU senior major in Computer Science, walked across the stage in December fairly assured that he won’t have much trouble finding a job. “I haven’t been putting myself out there, but I’ve been looking around,” says Kelly when asked if he had been looking for a job before graduating. According to Kelly, the computer science field has been relatively stable despite the down economy.

Kelly did have some advice for other grads. “Start looking early,” he says. “And, don’t limit yourself to a particular (geographic) area because you might have to move.”

Blaine Beran, a senior Resort and Tourism Management major at CCU, is also keeping his options open in his job hunt. “I’m using my friends and family to reach out to people they know about jobs up and down the East Coast,” although his goal is to find a job in Charleston. And, he’s not just relying on family for help. “I’m reaching out to contacts that I’ve made over the last few years,” Beran notes.

Beran says that his experience gained from internships is keeping him optimistic about eventually finding a job, especially since the restaurant industry is starting to rebound.

Networking on the Net and the old fashioned way

Braunstein says the students who have the best luck are those who are “aggressive” in their job search. “You can’t wait for the most wonderful job to show up on a job board -- it’s probably not going to happen,” says Braunstein. “Job boards are a starting point to help you figure out who is hiring, and to help you figure out what type of positions you’re interested in…but once you know what you want, leave the job boards behind and move on and directly connect with specific employers.”

“They don’t like to hear that,” jokes Braunstein.

But, the truth is networking with employers has never been more important, and students who aggressively network prior to graduating have the most success in finding jobs. “Our employers continue to say that they do most of their hiring through networking,” Braunstein says. Understandably, this requires students to step outside their comfort zones, which is not always easy.

“We find that students shy away from [networking] because students don’t feel comfortable building that support network outside of what they’re normally used to,” says Garner. “The reality is that they’re going to have to do that in order to find…the hidden jobs.” These are jobs that are open, but not necessarily advertised publicly because employers are particular about the applicants they want to hire.

Students who rely on job boards rather than networking are often missing valuable opportunities. CareerBuilder.com (which is jointly owned by Weekly Surge’s parent company, The McClatchy Co.) is the largest job site in the United States, but has a job placement rate for students of only 2 percent, according to Braunstein. Meanwhile, CCU’s job placement rate is 67 percent within one year of graduation, higher than the national average of 65 percent.

Social media sites such as Linkedin.com provide options for students who are reluctant to network in person. Linkedin is the largest professional network on the Internet, and can be a powerful tool in making connections in the business world. However, Braunstein cautions that it has to be used correctly, “so students have to be committed to it.”

Likewise, Facebook and Twitter can be double-edged swords for job seekers, in particular college students who forget that last night’s party pictures may end up in front of a prospective employer’s eyes the next day. According to a study conducted by CareerBuilder last year, nearly two out of every five companies use social networking to screen applicants, with 65 percent of those companies saying they use social media to ensure the applicants conduct themselves professionally.

And, removing oneself completely from social media also raises suspicions. “I’ve heard both job seekers and employers wonder aloud about what it means if a job candidate doesn’t have a Facebook account,” writes Forbes staff writer Kashmir Hill in an August 2012 article about the dangers of removing oneself from social media. “Does it mean they deactivated it because it was full of red flags? Are they hiding something?” Therefore, it’s best to go back and clean up your posts, or adjust privacy settings to prevent outside snooping. In other words, think before you post.

Beyond social media, CCU and HGTC also offer networking and career events throughout the year. In November, Coastal hosted its first ever “National Career Development Day,” which saw 23 employers visit campus. The event wasn’t a career fair in the traditional sense, but a networking and educational event designed to enhance the job search for graduates.

That “aggressive attitude” of student job seekers is also important after finding an opening, and interviewing for the position. With the massive amount of competition for jobs, particularly entry-level career positions, it’s a zombie-eat-zombie environment. Graduates can’t afford to take a casual approach to finding a job, especially when it comes to follow-up. “It’s proactive,” Braunstein says. “It’s not waiting on the employer to follow-up with you. It’s going out there, and you taking the steps,” whether making a call directly to the employer after submitting a resume, or checking on the status of the position after a first interview.

“You don’t have to hound them everyday, but you don’t have to wait for them,” adds Braunstein.

Being aggressive and persistent can separate applicants from one another -- an important step in a competitive job market. “When they’re sitting in a classroom with 20, 30, 40 other people in a room, they’re all pretty much going for the very same jobs in this market,” Garner warns. “So [students] have to make sure that they’re marketing themselves in a way that puts them far and above the people who are in their class.”

This includes excelling in more than just academics. Employers with the benefit of a large pool of applicants are also looking for extra-curricular activities, internships, and professional associations. “The 2013 class really needs to understand that it is going to be a combination of things aside from their academic performance,” says Garner. “It’s selling the total package.”

The clock is ticking...

OK, so be aggressive, persistent, and network until your wrist is numb from shaking hands. But, how long does finding a job actually take? A while. In fact, the average job search takes nine to 12 months, which has increased during the last few years. And, only 65 percent of graduates find jobs in their field within the first six months.

As such, students should start searching for jobs well before they graduate. “At the latest, you should be starting your job search a full semester before graduation,” says Braunstein. So for the 2013 seniors who have yet to begin their job search, the clock is ticking. Loudly.

Braunstein suggests students approach the job search with flexibility in mind, which can expand options and shorten the time it takes to eventually find a job. Students who are open to relocating will have a much shorter job search than those set on staying on the Grand Strand. “Coastal students are averaging more than a year to find a career position, particularly for those who hope to stay in the Grand Strand area,” says Braunstein.

She attributes this to the absence of corporate headquarters, limited industry, and the fact that the local economy simply lacks the positions available for the number of graduates coming from the area’s schools. Rather than the Grand Strand, Coastal students have the best luck finding jobs in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C. and across Florida.

Students who also take a “career-building approach,” the odds of finding employment more quickly than peers who holdout for the “ideal” position. “You’re not going to walk into that six-figure job immediately out of college,” says Garner. “You may have to crawl before you walk.”

Flexibility, however, does not mean completely leaving your options open. Students who know what they want to do can save themselves months chasing down dead ends rather than leads that take them in the right career direction.

“My main advice would be to truly understand what it is that you want to do,” Garner suggests. “That is where a lot of people miss the boat because they don’t have that focus. They say ‘I want to be in business,’ and you ask them what that means…and they can’t tell you whether or not they want to be in management, or want to be in marketing.”

But, even if you do everything right, finding a job in 2013 is still probably going to suck. Prepare yourself for that. It’s going to be long, frustrating, and at some points, utterly hopeless – especially if you haven’t already started prepping your resume. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel as long as you remain aggressive, flexible, and focused.

Plus, average salaries are going up for recent grads. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers , the average starting salary for a bachelor’s degree graduate is $44,259. This is up 1.7 percent from the Class of 2011. So, at least you’ll have a higher salary to start paying back those student loans.

The best advice is to use any and all resources at your disposal. This may be family and professional networks, or the school’s career services center. And, if all else fails, you can always hold-out for another apocalypse.

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