For Some Grads, It's Back to School or Get a McJob

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As weeks of joblessness stretch into months, many recent college graduates say they are getting more desperate each day.

Some have turned to any employment they can find. Norm McClave, 28, who graduated from Princeton before receiving his MBA from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, is a contract employee at 20th Century Fox.

Others are giving up--at least temporarily--to boost their resumes with more schooling, such as classical civilization major Marisol Aguilar, 22, who is staying at UCLA another year.

Others press on, sending out dozens of resumes and waiting for callbacks that are few and far between.

Patrick Hefler has sent out 40 resumes and gone to three interviews since graduating in December from USC with a biochemistry degree. As cartoons blared on television in his Los Angeles apartment, he said he wished he had spent some of his college life taking on an internship or lab work.

"It just seemed retarded to work and not get paid when I was in school, but now I'd kill for two years' experience," said Hefler, 23. "The chance of getting callbacks is abysmal when you're just one of a couple thousand resumes and you have no experience. Right now I think I'd do pretty much about anything."

Hefler and thousands of other highly educated job seekers in California are facing what most college career counselors and labor market experts agree is one of the most competitive job markets since the early 1990s.

The job market is especially parched in California, with employers in the West saying they planned to hire 63.5% fewer new college grads than in 2001, according to a survey conducted by the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers. Nationwide, employers estimated a 36.4% drop in hiring.

"Applicants seem to be much more desperate to get any kind of paycheck," said Allstate Insurance spokeswoman Lisa Wannamaker, who added that the company plans to hire about as many people as in past years but that the applicant pool is much more qualified. University officials said many graduates are settling for lesser positions, unlike in recent years when they had their pick among multiple job offers.

"The slowing down of the economy means the slowing down of opportunities," said Linda Baldwin, admissions director at UCLA's Anderson School of Business. "Students are being forced to give up their pipe dreams and look for shelter somewhere, whether it's in grad school or prolonging their undergraduate time, or in taking a job that isn't the one of their dreams."

The lagging economy, a downturn in the high-tech and consulting industries, and the aftershocks of Sept. 11 are causing the bleak outlook, experts said. .

"We're coming out of a period in the late '90s where anyone with half a brain could get a decent job," said labor economist Alec Levenson, a USC Marshall School of Business professor. "And decent meaning not just relatively well-paying, but one that actually matched their real desires and interests.... Those golden days are over."

Stanford economics graduate Sam Wordie is one of many using law school or other graduate programs as a refuge from the economic downturn. Law school applications had risen 18.5% nationwide by mid-May, the biggest annual increase in 20 years, according to the nonprofit Law School Admissions Council.

Wordie, 22, a varsity football player who had two internships before graduating last year, has been substitute teaching and waiting tables in East Palo Alto.

"When I got into law school and didn't get a job after graduating, it sort of made my choice for me," said Wordie, who will attend New York University. "A college degree just doesn't carry as much weight as it used to."

Humanitarian outreach programs, such as AmeriCorps, are also seeing a surge of interest. Teach for America, an organization that places recent graduates in classrooms in low-income neighborhoods across the country, received about 14,000 applications this year, nearly triple the number it received in 2001.

"Students are being more introspective about the kinds of things they want to do," said Alysa Polkes, Career Management Center director at UCLA's business school. "It's a lot easier to go in that direction when there aren't a whole lot of other opportunities vying for their attention."

McClave, the MBA holder who's working at Fox, said that at least the undemanding job allows him to continue his job search. He added, however, that he has lowered his expectations substantially since he moved to Los Angeles after graduating a year ago.

Jenny Godehn, who started an improv troupe at Whittier College and acted in more than 20 plays, graduated from the college Friday with a theater degree and began a job as a waitress Saturday.

"It's extremely frustrating, especially when I consider how much money I put into this school," said Godehn, 22, who will make minimum wage plus tips. "I assume it will pay itself back in the future. But for now, being a college graduate waiting tables makes me feel like a fish out of water."

But while other graduates return to the classroom or scramble for whatever paycheck they can get, some are gearing up to start their dream jobs. Josh Seno snagged a job generating new business at a San Diego pharmaceutical company after graduating this year with a master's degree in bioscience from the Claremont University Consortium's Keck Graduate Institute.

The 25-year-old's position will require his technical knowledge and the business acumen he gained while getting his degree, which combines elements of an MBA with a focus on science.

Getting those kinds of skills during the current financial slump is key to finding employment in one's field, said Baldwin of UCLA.

"Next year, as the economy heats up, students will have more choices," she said. "Students are just trying to find refuge right now, but it's those who use this year constructively who will get the unique tools that will set them apart."

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