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College grads will have to work at finding a job

Here's the good news, college grads: There are jobs to be had.

The bad news?

Unlike the good old days, say last year, a decent grade-point average and some previous experience isn't a practically guaranteed ticket to a steady paycheck.

"It's the most undesirable job market I've seen in my tenure of 20 years," said Francene Gilmer, director of the James Stuckert Career Center at the University of Kentucky.

About half of four-year grads had a job before they left school last year, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Some 75 percent were employed within six months.

It's too early to tell exactly how those numbers might change come May, but it's clear it will be a different world now that the word "stimulus" has become a regular part of dinner table conversation.

"Tight and contracting but not impossible," is how the market is described by Carla Ockerman-Hunter, owner of CareerSpan, a Lexington career counseling service.

First, having a degree does increase your chances of finding work. In Kentucky, the overall unemployment rate is at 7.8 percent for December, the most recent month available. But, according to statistics collected by the Census Bureau, in 2008 the unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma was 9 percent. The unemployment rate among people with a bachelor's degree or additional higher education was comparatively low 2.6 percent.

And companies are looking for educated employees. There were 130 companies represented at a campus career fair last week, Gilmer said. Although that's down from about 150 last year, , she said there are jobs.

For example, all those Baby Boomers are still retiring and need to be replaced. Even with all the grim news of lay-offs and record unemployment numbers, some businesses, mostly small companies, are growing, she said.

Businesses with 24 employees or less are most likely to be hiring, said Ockerman-Hunter.

That describes Louisville-based ARGI Financial, which was recruiting at a UK job fair last week. Managing director Doug Zimmerman had recently hired a new employee and was looking to add a few more. He said students seemed willing to join a small but growing organization where they could work their way up.

People also are willing to broaden the types of jobs they'll consider, said Amanda Duty, who was at the fair recruiting for Save-A-Lot. Hard times are good for the thrift-conscious food store chain. And, she said, she had a steady stream of students interested in learning about opportunities in the Save-A-Lot distribution center, a job that starts at about $45,000.

But it is a different world than even 12 months ago.

When she started school four years ago Sarah Aicken expected that she'd plow through her classes and land an advertising job — no problem.

"That's what happened to my sister," said Aicken. "That's what happened to my father. It's instilled in me that's the way it is suppose to be."

But the advertising major from Cincinnati, dressed in a crisp white shirt for the UK career fair, said she's not sure she'll have the same path. She is heading to Barcelona, Spain, for the summer as part of her minor in Spanish. After that, she'll see. "I'm not as worried as I probably should be," she said. She's considered a community service job, such as Americorps, if she can't find something in advertising.

Her positive outlook was echoed by Amber Jones, a sociology major, who said she was optimistic that she'd find something in her field when she graduated in May.

But the students who were dressed up in their pressed black suits for career fair are smart to be already looking, said Ockerman-Hunter, a master career counselor. There are many more students who "don't have a clue" about the need to already be in serious job-hunt mode.

Things are likely to get tougher before they get better, said Andrea J. Koncz, employment information manager, National Association of Colleges and Employers, which gathers data about jobs and graduates. According to a recent survey, about a third of the companies responding said they would be going on campus to recruit but only to keep their hiring pool current. They wouldn't be offering jobs.

One of the few bright spots in the job market is in the area of government. Hiring for government jobs is up nearly 20 percent, Koncz said, mostly due to vacancies created by retirement.

The biggest key to finding a job, said Koncz, is starting early and getting work experience. "Even if it is an unpaid internship, it's relevant experience," she said. Employers consistently rate experience as a priority when hiring, she said.

Ockerman-Hunter said graduates should examine the connections they've already made through family, friends and previous work experience to sent out feelers about jobs.

And, she said, they should take advantage of the services available through their university career center.

There is work, but you will have to work for it.

"The message is that if you are not actively looking or making yourself ready for employment you are going to be stuck," Gilmer said.