The Job Search

This post was written by CBS News producer Amy Birnbaum, to accompany a Kelly Wallace piece on Friday's Evening News with Katie Couric.

As college seniors get their diplomas this month, there's the usual excitement and the obvious relief. But this year more than any, the seniors we spoke with are worried, because so many of them are leaving college without a job.

"It seems like none of my friends have job offers," said Elon University senior Bobby Hoppey.

Those anecdotes are borne out by the newly released 2009 College Student Survey, conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). The findings show that this year, 19.7 % of graduates who looked for a job actually have one. Back in 2007, that number was 51%. And employers reported to NACE that they plan to hire 22 percent fewer grads this year than last.

Rhea Christian, who is an administrator at the career services center at City College, part of the City University of New York, says the recruitment slowdown on her campus has hit engineering students pretty hard. A few years ago, even last year, students were getting multiple job offers and signing bonuses. This year's seniors were expecting the same but the offers have trailed off. So she says students need to think carefully about what skills they have and where they can apply their training. That got us thinking: where are the jobs?

One place: the public sector. That's an area that is still recruiting, hiring about 6% more grads this year than last, according to NACE. The latest government job numbers show public payrolls rising by 72,000. And with stimulus money in the offing, students are now thinking a government job might be a real opportunity.

Wai Chang, a management and administration major at City College, visited a job fair recently, the first time his college had a fair just for government and not for profit employers. He got some positive feedback from the FBI, which told him his language fluency in Chinese might be a draw for the Bureau. So we tagged along as he hit the gym, trying to train for the physical test required to be a special agent. He recognizes there will be a lot of competition.

"After the resume process and I get an interview, I'll show them I'm ready for the physical part as well," he told us during a workout.

His classmate Eric Evans, an engineering major, told us, "We're finding some of our skills for these private sector jobs can actually carry on into some of the public sector jobs and if you really need a job, it's time to explore some of those avenues."

Oleg Volchansky, another engineering major at City College, said he never thought about a job in government.

"I was always thinking that I would get a job somewhere in the private sector, work for a small company or even a big company," he told us. "But (from) what I have seen, I just need to kind of adjust, kind of look for jobs in the public sector because this is where the jobs are now."

In the course of reporting this story, we talked with The Partnership for Public Service, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness of the need for public service. It did a survey of college career centers across the country and found that 90% of the students who use the centers are interested in federal jobs, and that there's been a big surge of interest since November. The students say they're interested because of the lack of jobs elsewhere, the stability of the federal government, and President Obama's election and his call for public service. The not for profit's mission is to increase awareness of the need for public service and the availability of jobs in the government. To make the process for federal jobs a little less daunting, the organization hosts workshops at colleges to try and simplify the complicated federal jobs application process.

We observed one of these presentations where Jorge Luna, a PhD candidate at Columbia University and a campus ambassador for the Partnership for Public Service, told students, including Wai, "We want you to be considering a federal position as actively as you would be say Morgan Stanley or any of the other private sectors."

He also tried to encourage students by telling them salaries at the federal government were not so bad.

"The myth that salaries are low, low, low, that's not true." That made Wai smile, since his dream of working for an investment bank seemed all too far away. He had yet to land one interview despite the dozens of resumes he'd sent out.

Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and other service organizations are also seeing a big jump in applications this year. Teach for America, which places college graduates as teachers in underserved communities, received more than 35,000 applications this year, up from about 25,000 last year, for less than 4,000 slots. Elyse Ross, a Barnard senior, says she's lucky to be accepted, and feels that in some ways the recession might be spurring people to rethink what they want to do after college and to consider the value of giving back.

Ramya Pratiwadi is another prospective teacher, who was also accepted into Teach for America's very selective program. She switched into engineering from medicine at Columbia University. As she started to job hunt in "green" consulting, she found that the companies were either cutting back in those areas, or were hiring people with much more experience.

"They weren't willing to take a gamble on people with little experience. It just wasn't worth it for them," she told me. She'd known about Teach for America, and as she learned more about the program, she saw its value. Her original goal was to be in academics, get a PhD, and maybe teach, so she saw this experience as a good match for her interests and experiences. She'll be teaching in the Philadelphia area in the fall, and long term? She might just stay in teaching. Career coaches and counselors say public service jobs are great resume builders for longer term career goals, once the term of service at the Peace Corps or Teach for America is over. Employers like the responsibility and independence young people gain from doing these types of programs.

Career counselors say, bottom line, graduating seniors have to be flexible and think outside the box. Jobs at the FBI aren't just special agents, there are accountants, linguists, computer engineers, and chemists. Or in the growing field of health care, there are opportunities for marketing majors, IT people, public relations specialists… more than doctors or nurses.

Laurence Shatkin, the author of many career books, including "200 Best Jobs for College Graduates," encourages students not to be discouraged, keeping in mind the proverb about the glass half-full or half-empty.

"Maybe it's only a quarter full and three quarters empty but you have to look at the part that's full and say, that's what I'm going to aim for," he says.