This month, thousands of the Wichita area's brightest young men and women marched across the stage — and into their parents' basements to look for work.
2010 is shaping up to be a lousy year for college graduates to start a career, although recent surveys disagree on whether it's lousier than 2009.
Those with good grades in the right majors and a solid long-term internship are still getting at least one job offer, say experts. And those who are particularly lucky, resourceful or well-connected are also starting their careers.
But the majority face weeks or months of online searching, networking and umpteen rejection letters.
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One recent national survey of major employers said that there were 40 applicants for every entry-level opening.
"It's a tight market, no doubt about it," said Jill Pletcher, director of career services at Wichita State University.
Megan Cox recently finished at Newman University with a bachelor's degree in art with an emphasis in graphic design.
She's had a couple short internships — one for the university and one for the Museum of World Treasures — but neither led to job offers. Now, she's living with her aunt and working part time at Express in Towne West Square.
She's searching for job postings online and plans to start networking. She's hopeful about an interview she had last week, but she's not stressed... yet.
"I have the whole summer to find a job," Cox said. "Maybe in August or September, if I don't have a job, I'll start freaking out."
Up or down?
A recent forecast by the National Association of Colleges and Employers predicts that the hiring of new grads will be up about 5 percent over last year.
That follows drops of 22 percent in the spring of 2009 and 7 percent more in the fall.
"We're just happy that it's an increase this year since we saw such a large drop last year," said Andrea Koncz, the group's employment information manager.
On the other hand, a national survey by the Society of Human Resource Management showed that fewer than a third of companies have hired college graduates this spring, down from 39 percent in 2009.
This study suggests that while most companies are hiring again, they are opting mainly for experienced workers.
An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, shows that the unemployment rate for college graduates under 25 was 9 percent during the year ending in March, compared to 5.4 percent in 2007.
While 9 percent doesn't sound too bad, it doesn't separate out all of the low-paying jobs graduates are taking instead of embarking on new careers.
And one recent study has thrown a real scare into graduates.
A study by Yale University professor Lisa Kahn suggests that, in the first year after college, recession-era graduates earned 7 percent to 8 percent less for each 1 point increase in the unemployment rate. The difference in annual earnings between recession-era grads and their brethren in better times took more than a decade to be erased.
Even some hot fields are cooling down, although they are sill hiring.
Lori Davis, tax practice leader for Grant Thornton in Wichita, said her office is still hiring accounting graduates, although not as many.
The tax practice is fine — companies are searching for ways to squeeze out every dollar — but the auditing practice is down and consulting is way down, she said. The upshot for grads is that there's more competition than before.
"Now, I think supply is higher than demand," she said.
Ravi Pendse, WSU's chief information officer, said there is still demand for computer engineering students.
"They seem to be getting jobs," he said. "But instead of multiple offers, maybe they're getting one or two offers."
Patrick Ronning of Lenexa is seeking just such an offer.
He just graduated from WSU with a degree in electrical engineering and has been working at the Learjet plant for two years. But, he said, he is looking for a more stable industry, possibly computer networking.
"I'm probably good for the next five or 10 years, and that's fine and good, but would like something more stable for the long term," he said.
Is there hope?
"There is, but it takes tenacity," said WSU's Pletcher. "For most it's not a fun process."
Searching for jobs online and sending in applications isn't enough in hard times, she said. Students must learn to network by tapping into the knowledge of family and friends.
The secret, she said, is that many jobs aren't posted.
"Businesses are telling me, 'Why would I post a job online? I'm going to get a bazillion applications,' " she said.
Students should try to establish some kind of relationship with people in their target companies, to get inside information on jobs, to enable them to tailor their application and to show initiative.
"It's really about showing them how you can solve a problem for them," she said.
An example of that might be Josh Freking, who just graduated from WSU with a degree in mathematics.
He discovered late in college that what he really liked about math was teaching it to kids as a tutor at Southeast High.
That's why he had hopes of landing a job in a high-demand field of mathematics teaching — that is, until this spring's state budget crunch forced teacher hiring freezes and layoffs.
So he was kind of stalled when his mother, who works at Remington High School, mentioned her son to officials there. Freking is interviewing for a job as a paraprofessional there to see whether he really likes teaching.
He said picking a career has been kind of confusing, and the tough economy has made it a lot more difficult.
"I'm still kind of figuring it out," he said.