University City

Students, recent graduates flock to job fair

Russell Roux walks among hundreds of young men and women dressed in conservative business attire, searching for nametags that say "IT."

"Right now I have a position I would hire for," said Roux, vice president of technology at Kaleida Systems in Matthews. "I like to offer kids an opportunity out of school."

Roux was one of 112 employers and graduate school representatives who set up booths at UNC Charlotte's Fall Career Expo Sept. 16.

More employers signed on for this year's expo than in the recent past. That was good news for new college graduates, a group that continues to suffer more than any other in the job hunt.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among those ages 20 to 24 stood at 14.8 percent in August, much higher than the 7.8 percent unemployment rate for those 25 or older.

But Rebecca Cody, senior assistant director for publicity and outreach at UNCC's Career Development Center, said the number of employers looking for new hires at this month's expo indicates a small but significant shift.

This year's employer turnout marks a 15 percent increase from last fall and a 70 percent increase from the 2009 expo.

"You can definitely see it coming back," said Cody. "We had 65 at this event in fall 2009."

But it's still not near the 200 employers who typically registered before the recession.

The center has stepped up its influence on graduates since the recession hit, offering students tips on dress and communication skills to improve their chances in a job market that's more competitive than just a few years ago. Employers like Roux have noticed the difference.

"In years past, the kids were coming in in shorts and T-shirts. They looked like they just came from the beach," he said. "This year, for this particular show, there are more candidates, and they're better prepared," he said.

With so many qualified applicants, graduates like Matthew Shortt, who holds degrees in physics and math, are trying to find other ways to look good to employers.

"There are so many people out there that have your degree," said Shortt, who attended the expo to find a lead on an internship.

For others, avoiding the job market altogether for a few years is the answer. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, applications to graduate school programs saw their biggest increase in a decade during the heart of the recession. Fall 2009 saw an 8.3 percent increase in applications over fall 2008.

Sandra Krause, director of graduate admissions and recruiting at Appalachian State University, said that's a trend she sees continuing. Krause said she spoke with 18 students interested in pursuing advanced degrees during the first few hours of the expo.

"A lot of times we're Plan B. If they don't get a job, graduate school is a good option," said Krause. "But a lot of the students I've seen today seem to be looking at graduate schools as their Plan A."

Others, still years away from earning their undergraduate degrees, are trying to get an edge early. Michael Skarbowski, who expects to graduate in 2013 with a mechanical engineering degree, surveyed the expo for internship programs to add to his résumé.

Last year, when he spoke with employers about job opportunities while attending college, many required experience first.

"They would ask, 'Have you had a previous internship?' and I had to say no," he said.

Even for those with years of work experience and advanced degrees, the search can prove difficult. When the economy closed the health-care staffing agency where Caroline Parker had worked for the past five years, the UNCC alumna found herself in a job market totally unlike the one she saw during her first time out in 2006.

"When I graduated with my undergraduate degree, that was the first place I interviewed at, and I got it," she said. "It's totally different now."

Parker, 27, said she sends at least 25 applications out each week and now has an master's in business administration, but neither has offered her an advantage yet.

"I'm qualified. I was an honor student. I have experience, but I'm not really hearing much back," said Parker. "What can you do? I don't know if there's too much more."