CLEMSON - This winter's college graduates carrying years of school debt along with their diplomas are walking out into the icy blast of a frozen economy.
Nationally, 19.7 percent of 2009 graduates in the job market had jobs by the time they graduated, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. By comparison, 51 percent of 2007 graduates had jobs.
"It's the economy," said Jenny Hutchinson, 25, who received her master of fine arts degree at Clemson's winter commencement and has found the winter job market so bleak she decided to take time off to work on her portfolio.
"I don't have a family that I have to feed, so I'm a little less stressed than a lot of other people," Hutchinson said.
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There seems to be a hiring freeze on new nursing graduates in the Upstate, said Ra'Sheena Parker of Clemson, who graduated from Clemson University with honors and is looking for a nursing job in Charlotte because she's found nothing closer to home.
The assumption that college degrees open doors to rewarding careers feels like a broken promise for many new graduates who can't find work or must settle for jobs unrelated to their degree or that require no degree.
"Nobody's hiring," said Sam McClary, labor market analyst with the state Employment Security Commission. "Even college graduates are having a hard time, but that's not because of skills. That's because no jobs are available right now."
Graduation day surveys at Clemson show that 51 percent of August 2008 graduates had jobs, 53 percent of December 2008 graduates had jobs, and 33 percent of May 2009 graduates had jobs, according to Clemson's Michelin Career Center.
"It was just like walking off a cliff," said Flora Riley, executive director of the center. Majors in engineering, health fields and business are probably the best off in the current job market, "but all sectors are down."
Employers have significantly reduced hiring in the past year, said Tom Halasz, director of the Career Center at the University of South Carolina. "Unlike last fall, when there were still pockets of relatively strong hiring in some industries, all areas of recruiting were impacted this year."
The number of employers at USC's career events fell by nearly half - from 200 last year to 108 this year, Halasz said.
Clemson saw a 40 percent drop in employers at its spring 2009 career fair compared with spring of 2008, Riley said. The number of companies recruiting on campus dropped 35 percent, and job postings dropped 27 percent in the past year.
College degrees are still "the passport" to jobs of the future and to better lives, said Margarita Benitez, director of higher education for Education Trust, a nonprofit education advocacy group.
"We are undergoing a serious recession, but it's better to have a college degree than not to have it," Benitez said.
However, colleges could do more in the areas of graduation rates - helping more students finish college - and greater dialogue between schools and employers on training students for the marketplace, Benitez said.
Adults with high school diplomas earned an average of $33,600 a year in 2008; associates' degree holders earned an average of $41,400 a year, and bachelors' degrees boosted annual earnings to $59,400, according to U.S. Census data. Masters' degrees upped the annual average to $70,000, and doctoral and professional degrees brought annual average salaries of $95,800 and $121,300 respectively.
Clemson University President James Barker said a Clemson degree is more valuable at times like this when job competition is keener.
"This is when quality matters," Barker said. The challenge ahead is to maintain that quality in the current economy. "That's our quest - maintaining that quality so our graduates have that insurance policy of a Clemson degree."
That's little comfort for Kathryn Grenig, whose new bachelor's degree in business management from Clemson already appears a bit tarnished as she lowers her expectations from management to sales positions as applicants with graduate degrees squeeze out those with only a bachelor's degree for entry-level management slots.
"It's really frustrating and discouraging," she said. "I have no problems getting interviews, but I always get a rejection letter."
While new graduates struggle to find jobs that fit the skills they gained in college, there are employers with unfilled positions that can't find workers with the needed skills, McClary said.
The disconnect is because South Carolina has high numbers of dropouts and displaced workers - people whose jobs moved overseas and who lack skills for newer jobs, McClary said.
"In a lot of cases, college graduates may need to lower their expectations in terms of job attainment. And then there's the question of whether an employer will take someone who is over-qualified," McClary said.
A graduate's major also makes a difference, said Steve McLaughlin, also a labor market analyst with the state Employment Security Commission.
"If you have someone coming out in marketing, there may not be demand for their skills. Most industries across the state are depressed, and it's an employer's market. The demand has primarily been in the medical field," McLaughlin said.
On the other hand, expansions like Boeing coming to Charleston will open jobs in careers such as civil engineering, for example, McLaughlin said.
High schools need to better prepare students and push them to succeed, and colleges need to do better at helping students complete degrees, said Alan Richard, spokesman for the Southern Regional Education Board.
"This is especially important since much of our new college enrollment in the South is among black and Hispanic students or others who traditionally haven't attended college in such great numbers," Richard said. "I'm an Upstate native, and everyone from the region knows the different sets of knowledge and skills many of today's jobs require compared with the jobs many of our parents and grandparents held," Richard said. "Mill work is mostly gone, and high-tech manufacturing remains and is changing, for instance."