Recession Grads Not Afraid to Turn Down Jobs

Even after months of sending out resumes, Paige Malinowski was reluctant to accept the first job offer she received this past June from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Sure, it had been weeks since her graduation from Lehigh University, and she was still jobless, but Malinowski was unsure about whether becoming a coordinator in the institute's radiology department would offer room for "as much personal growth and development" as she hoped for. So she turned down the offer.

Facing the highest national unemployment rate since 1983, recent graduates such as Malinowski have shown themselves to be surprisingly selective when it comes to hunting for a job. A September survey of more than 35,000 students by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that of the 40 percent of university students with at least one job offer this past spring, just 45 percent accepted a position. In most instances, students rejected their one and only offer, suggesting graduates may be struggling to grasp the severity of the weakest labor market in their lifetime.

"A lot of these students are super achievers, and they come to this point after having graduated feel[ing] that their college education has more than adequately prepared them for the job market, says Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at NACE. "They think that their resumes make them stellar candidates, and they honestly don't really see the possibility that an employer would turn them down even in a recession."

Some students rejected jobs because they were too far from home, while others turned down offers because the employer lacked name recognition. Salary expectations also came into play, with those that accepted positions generally being offered more than graduates who said no. In the computer sciences, for example, the average salary offered to students who accepted a job was $60,000, while the average amount offered to those who turned down a position was closer to $46,000.

Confidence among graduates was another factor, according to the survey. While graduates understand the economy has soured, they do not feel the poor job market affects them directly. When asked how long it would take to land a full-time job upon graduation, nearly three out of five respondents who rejected offers said three months. Across the broader labor market, meanwhile, a record 5.4 million, or 36 percent, of the nation's 15.1 million jobless have been out of work for more than six months.

"You have to remember that all the previous classes they had seen had gotten jobs relatively easily," Koc says. Just two years ago, for example, more than half of all seniors who looked for work were able to secure a job for after graduation; in 2009, that figure fell to less than 20 percent.

"It had been a sellers market up until late 2008 … and students always thought employers would be competing over them rather than they having to compete amongst themselves for a job."

With the job market in such turmoil, career services officers at universities were planning for a flood of extra work. But students did not reach out for career advice any more than usual this past spring, according to Jack Rayman, director of career services at Penn State University.

"We've been speculating, trying to figure out exactly what's going on because we weren't inundated with people who wanted help the way we normally are in this kind of down cycle," Rayman says.

Nor did students seem intent on getting a head start on the competition by beginning their job searches earlier, says Marva Gumbs Jennings, executive director of the career center at George Washington University.

"There's no doubt that the graduating class earlier this year probably didn't embrace the whole economic issue as much as this current group will," Jennings says.

She says her office has tried to respond more aggressively to the recession by getting students "in the face of employers" through activities such as company site visits, and by inviting employers to campus for more informal one-on-one meetings with students. There is also more of a push to reach out to students via social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

"In those messages it's all about early, and take advantage of resources and opportunities," Jennings says.

But even students who organize early may be finding fewer opportunities to hand out a resume. During Penn State's September career fair, the number of employers on hand was down a quarter, to 417 from 568 a year ago. The sense among students, Rayman says, was that most employers "were just kind of flying the flag, and maybe not hiring, or certainly not in much of a hiring mode."

They may be right. In September, the Business Roundtable's third quarter survey of 107 chief executives found 40 percent of CEOs expected to cut jobs over the next six months. The survey followed a similar report from the NACE earlier in the month concluding employers expect to hire 7 percent fewer graduates from the class of 2010 than they hired from the class of 2009.

Of course, a shortage of job openings is just one of the disadvantages facing students who graduate in a recession. Another drawback: lower pay.

In a study due out in the journal Labour Economics, Lisa Kahn, an assistant professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, details the pay of white males who graduated before, during, and after the recession of 1982. She found that for every one percentage point jump in the unemployment rate, those who graduated during a recession would earn 6 percent to 7 percent less than those who did not. Even 15 years out, students who finished college in a recession were still earning 2.5 percent less than those who did not.

For the unluckiest graduates – those who finished in May 1982 – versus the luckiest graduates of 1988 and 1989, the difference in pay was more than $100,000, Kahn notes.

Recession graduates also started out in lower-level positions where they struggled to acquire the skills necessary to leapfrog the competition for more senior positions. And they did not switch jobs as often, which would have been "the most common way for them to increase their salaries," Kahn says.

Given such downsides, Kahn suggests current graduates keep up the search for the type of job they think they'd "be happiest with." While that may mean having to accept a less worthwhile position for the time being, "eventually the economy will pick up."

In the case of Malinowski, her initial reluctance ultimately paid off. Days after receiving her first offer, she accepted the position she really wanted at Dana-Farber working in the institute's gastrointestinal cancer department. While the job pays $5,000 less than the initial position she was offered, she said she has little regret. Frustrating as the process was, she says, "it really could have been a lot worse, so I'm very lucky."

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