According to a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, companies intend to hire 22 percent fewer college graduates this year compared to last year's class. In early reports from the NACE's study of 2009 graduating seniors due out in April, as many as 63 percent of students surveyed are concerned that the economy will negatively affect their job prospects.
But the news might not be all bad. While the economy is down, volunteer and service program applications are up. Way up.
While service-oriented job programs like Teach for America and Peace Corps have enjoyed steady popularity with young people as an alternative to entering the traditional workforce upon graduation, these programs are reporting a major surge in applications in the past several months.
Teach for America, a training program that hires recent college graduates and professionals with no formal teaching experience to work in the nation's neediest school districts, has received more than 35,000 applications for this year's teaching corps -- a 42 percent increase over last year's record numbers.
Amy Rabinowitz, TFA's vice president of communications, says the struggling economy is just one cause for the jump in applications.
"While the economy played a role in reducing competition for top applicants, we believe this year's increase can also be attributed a growing interest among young people to engage in public service," she explains.
Today's university graduates represent part of a wider trend in which colleges and universities expect well-rounded students to have engaged in public service throughout their education.
Volunteerism by older teens has doubled since the 1980s and service participation in college has risen sharply since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 according to the Corporation for National and Community Service Report, "Volunteer Growth in America."
The UCLA Graduate School of Education reports that two-thirds of college freshmen believe it is essential or very important to help others -- the highest figure in 25 years.
This surge in service appears indicative of the so-called Millennial Generation -- people born between 1983 and 2003 -- who have come of age as the Internet has increased access to information about communities around the world as well as service opportunities across cultural and national boundaries.
Madhav Seshadri, 21, who recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a major in neuroscience, rejected a job offer as a lab technician for the chance to go to Togo as a Peace Corps Health Care Extension Worker this June.
Seshadri has already participated in health care service work in India and the United States. "I've always been interested in health, rural health, and I wanted to help," he said.
He will apply to medical school from Togo, and like many students entering similar service programs, Seshadri believes that experience will expand his sense of responsibility.
"This will make me a better doctor," he added.
Steven Greenhouse, a jobs and labor reporter for the New York Times, notes that the spike in service oriented organizations appears to be a "logical response to not enough paying jobs" in the current employment climate.
"[Young people] are looking for alternatives that are good for the resume, good for society. The only thing that meets all that criteria is Peace Corps and volunteerism," Greenhouse said. "Great Wall Street jobs are not going to be here, public service is still here"
Such positions offer an "opportunity to wait out the economy for one or two years," Greenhouse added.
Part of President John F. Kennedy's vision of cross-cultural communication and call to service, the Peace Corps has also seen an increase in applications this year. Although the Peace Corps is open to all adults, the median age of participation is 25, with many members joining soon after college.
Acting Press Director Laura Lartigue believes that President Kennedy's vision of service still resonates with America's current generation of young people and has been revived by President Barack Obama, a leader that they helped elect in large numbers.
Lartigue said the new president "definitely made the call to service a cause of his campaign. We also saw our online applications spike 175 percent around the time of President Obama's inauguration. This is testimony to the way many Americans have felt inspired by the new administration." President Obama has promised to double the Peace Corps by 2011 as a part of his service agenda.
A former community activist on the South Side of Chicago, Mr. Obama has asked Americans to "answer a new call to service to meet the challenges of our new century." Before his inauguration, he urged Americans to use the Martin Luther King holiday as a day of service.
Idealist.org, an online search engine for volunteer opportunities and non-profit jobs noticed an 18 percent spike in page views during the week of Obama's inauguration compared to the previous week. The total number of volunteer listings viewed went up 27 percent.
Idealist's "New Service" blog for current or former members of service organizations saw their average monthly page views double in the two months since the inauguration.
Amy Potthast, a writer for New Service, said that in many ways a term of service after graduation is becoming more acceptable to young people, especially when the idea of finding a more traditional job immediately after graduation is becoming increasingly unlikely.
AmeriCorps, a clearinghouse funder for more than 4,000 different community and faith-based groups, has seen a record-breaking 400 percent increase in applications in the past four months.
Sandy Scott, director of media relations, says that on the MLK Day of Service, "participation went off the charts in 2009 thanks to [the] president-elect's call to service and making it a centerpiece of his inauguration." An excess of one million people helped with more than 13,000 projects -- more than double last year's Day of Service turnout.
President Obama has followed up on his campaign calls for service with an increase of $241 million in the 2010 federal budget for AmeriCorps and $201 million in the stimulus bill for the Corporation for National and Community Service.
On March 10, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the Serve America Act, which would expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 positions.
Supporters hope to pass it before Congress recesses in April. The House could vote on its version of the bill as early as this week.
The Senate measure, sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would provide $5 billion over five years for minimal living expenses and an educational stipend for people of all ages to volunteer in the fields of health care, energy, education and the environment.
In a statement published for the hearing, Sen. Kennedy said, "Many years ago, on the fifth anniversary of the Peace Corps, I asked one of those young Americans why they had volunteered, and I will never forget the answer: 'It was the first time someone asked me to do something for my country.' Now it's time to ask again."