To get a sense of the job market new college graduates face, consider the latest crop of nurses from Santa Rosa Junior College. Just eight of the 55 students are leaving with job offers – and that's considered good news.
Last year, no graduates of the California community college's associate degree nursing program had a job in hand.
"We're excited that finally something is happening," said Sharon Johnson, the program director.
This year's slightly better performance is one of many signs around the country that 2010 is a better year than 2009 for landing that first job out of college – but not by much.
New nurses are looking for something – anything – as the down economy has slowed retirements in their otherwise promising field. Teachers also face intense competition for positions that in their case have been made scarce by state and local budget cuts.
Even graduates with sought-after degrees had less than sizzling prospects. Fewer than half of U.S. accounting majors could boast job offers this spring, one study found.
There are signs of life. Employers plan to hire 5 percent more new college graduates this year than they did a year ago, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which also polled the future accountants.
The road to recovery appears long, however. In 2007, about two-thirds of soon-to-be graduates in the association's student survey reported having job offers in hand that spring. Just three years later, about 40 percent could say that.
"It's been a little depressing," said Lauren Wiygul, who will earn a master's degree in secondary English education from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., this summer.
She applied to more than a dozen private schools and every public district in the Atlanta area. After someone in human resources for the system in Georgia's Gwinnett County mentioned a possible language arts opening, she took a day off work, traveled to Atlanta and personally delivered her resume to 13 middle and high schools, hoping to introduce herself to principals.
She met a lot of sympathetic secretaries but not one principal. She has yet to get an interview.
"One principal, she wasn't rude, but she just e-mailed back, 'Positions are posted on our website,'" Wiygul said. "I have worked really hard to be able to teach. I just feel stuck."
Education majors have it toughest of the 2010 grads surveyed by the association of colleges and employers. Fewer than one in four had received job offers this spring.
The list of least sought-after majors included the physical sciences (such as chemistry and physics), languages, English, history or political science and journalism. Along with perennially popular accounting, the most attractive majors to employers were business administration, computer science, engineering and mathematics.
The private sector outlook didn't improve last week when the Labor Department announced U.S. businesses added just 41,000 jobs in May, an indication employers are not yet ramping up hiring despite other signs of economic recovery. The department offered better news Tuesday, saying job openings rose in April to their highest level since December 2008.
Some college career counselors report encouraging signs. Trudy Steinfeld, executive director of New York University's Wasserman Center for Career Development, said banks and consulting firms that were invisible a year ago are "staffing up like crazy."
But at the University of Texas at Arlington, associate director of career services Cheri Butler is advising students shut out of bank jobs to seek finance department positions in government, health care and education.
Wayne Wallace, director of the University of Florida's Career Resource Center, said that regardless of the field, the watchwords for new graduates are patience, flexibility and short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.
"Graduates, if they are willing to be geographically mobile and reasonably flexible about what they're willing to do to start out, tremendously increase their odds for success," he said.
Indiana University's Kelley School of Business devised a plan to improve the chances for graduates in its residential master's in business administration program. It included a dean's letter to 26,000 alumni, an electronic booklet featuring students' resumes and a job bank run by students with jobs for those still searching.
That last effort was dubbed "The Lonely Hearts Job Search Club."
"A simple plan, delivered to the right people with a clear objective, can go a long way in helping students during a challenging economy get to where they want to be," said Erik Medina, the school's director of graduate career services.
Last month, 74 percent of students had job offers at graduation, compared with 66 percent last year, he said.
For nurses, the long-term forecast is excellent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 22 percent job growth for registered nurses by 2018 as baby boomers age and nurses emerge as cheaper primary care alternatives to doctors.
But for now, jobs for new nurses are relatively scarce. More experienced nurses are putting off retirement or working extra hours, some because their spouses have been laid off, nursing school officials say.
"I look at this like an air pocket," said Marla Salmon, dean of the University of Washington School of Nursing. "The fact is we're still climbing in terms of the number of nurses needed. But the recession has definitely slowed hiring."
Salmon said she is encouraging graduates to think creatively. That could mean residencies – part of a doctor's career path but a relatively new development in nursing – and mentored job-sharing arrangements.
The tough market has caused some nursing graduates to lower their expectations, accepting jobs in long-term care and community health centers rather than top research hospitals.
Corey Fry, who will graduate this week with a master's degree from the highly regarded University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing, cast his search for nurse practitioner jobs nationwide.
He's joined professional organizations and honed his networking skills. After reading an article by a University of Maryland nurse practitioner, he sent the author an appreciative e-mail and attached his resume.
He has a phone interview there this week, and leads in St. Louis and Oregon.
"We've talked as classmates and we all agree our first job might not be our perfect job, but we need to get that first job," Fry said. "Then you can move beyond that if you need to."