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2009 July 13 - 12:00 am

TRACKING TRENDS: Graduates Must Get Creative In Dismal Job Market

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Graduation day is not desperation day.

This year’s college graduates are entering the toughest job market in a quarter-century. Oregon’s unemployment rate is 12.4 percent. Campus recruitment is down. And many doors to traditional career paths are closed for now.

That doesn’t mean all graduates have to give up all hope of putting their new degrees to work. But career counselors say it might take more time, creativity and persistence to get hired.

More new graduates are turning to other ways to gain work experience and, if all goes well, make a living. They are taking internships, joining service organizations and even starting their own businesses.

“A college-educated person is still a lot better off in the workplace than a lot of people who are struggling with employment and have lost their jobs,” said Deb Chereck, director of the University of Oregon’s career center. “What I’m worried about are those who are putting their heads in the sand and giving up.”

Ngan Nguyen, a recent Oregon State University graduate, sees the recession as an opportunity.

The biochemistry, biophysics and bioengineering major is collaborating with friends on two startup companies: a biodiesel manufacturer and eco-friendly, all-natural cosmetics lines. She turned down a job offer in San Diego and a chance to go to graduate school at MIT.

``It’s an ideal time to be an entrepreneur because the big companies are getting hit harder by the economy,’’ Nguyen, 22, said. ``It’s a good chance because people are open to new opportunities.”

Nguyen emigrated from Vietnam with her family at age 7, dropped out of high school at 16, got a night-school diploma at 17 and went to Linn-Benton Community College before transferring to Oregon State.

She thought she was really bad at science and math until she took them in college and excelled. She had grants and a lab job lined up at MIT but decided to stay in Corvallis instead.

“I’m really eager to really apply the knowledge I learned in school,” she said. “I don’t want to go to school for five more years before I try.”

She’s not typical. Nationally, about 20 percent of this year’s college graduates who applied for jobs got one, according to a spring survey of seniors by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That’s down from 51 percent in 2007 and 26 percent last year.

The survey also showed more graduating seniors this year put off their job searches than in the past two years.

Accounting, computer science and economics majors are the most likely to have job offers by graduation, although the numbers in those fields are down this year, according to the survey.

“A lot of people are hiring, but they are hiring less,” University of Oregon’s Chereck said.

Dee Thompson, director of Portland State University’s career center, said she urges students who are anxious about the job market to look at alternatives, such as internships, that improve their chances of employment when the economy improves.

“Maybe their first job out of college isn’t the exact job they wanted, but how can they get the skills to enhance that goal?” Thompson said.

And students seem to be doing just that.

Justin Tandingan, a 22-year-old graduate from the University of Oregon, is one of 4,100 new teachers chosen from a record 35,000 applications for Teach for America.

He will teach at a charter elementary school in San Jose, Calif., with the goal of helping low-income students. He hopes teaching will be “a good break from school that will still be productive.”

A lot of his friends also are doing volunteer, nonprofit or activist work instead of finding a traditional job or going straight to graduate school.

Minda Heyman, director of Lewis & Clark College’s Center for Career and Community Engagement, said the challenge for new graduates is to focus on a particular area and make connections with alumni and others in the field.

Lewis & Clark graduates “tend to take some time to figure out where they are going and what they are doing.” A lot of them want to stay in Portland but that might not be realistic in this job market, Heyman said.

“We try to be very honest with them,” Heyman said.

Euphrates Dahout, a dance and theater major who graduated from Reed College in May, will start a one-year internship at Berkeley Repertory Theater in July that pays $400 a month, plus free housing and classes and opportunities to understudy.

Dahout, 22, said she wants to learn the administrative side of running a theater in hopes of directing her own company someday. She will get the added perspective of how to survive a recession.

“For artists, it’s always been hard,” she said. “It just changes how hard.”

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