By Brian Maffly

The Salt Lake Tribune

 05/07/2010

Alexandra Weiss loves science, but pretty much detests laboratory work. The daughter of University of Utah genetics professor Robert Weiss, she witnessed the tedium of research before stepping foot on campus as a student.

"Since I was tiny, I was going into the lab and seeing him do experiments. I didn't have the patience to work in a lab but in high school I developed a love of business," says Weiss, who graduated Friday from the U. with bachelor's degrees in finance and biochemistry. "I want to bridge the two fields."

Weiss' dream career, in other words, is to mediate between the guys with the ideas and the guys with the money. But graduating into the worst job market in decades, she knew she had to distinguish herself if she hoped to get her career in venture capital on track. Her diligence paid off, garnering a position with the top-flight consulting firm Bain and Co. at its Dallas office.

Many of her fellow grads, however, will not land jobs related to their hard-earned skills and some will have trouble finding work of any kind. Observers are concerned a hiring trough could haunt members of the class of 2010 deep into their working lives. Unlike those who graduated in flush times, today's graduates are starting their careers on a lower rung that may translate into boring employment for the next several years and lower pay until they retire.

This environment puts a premium on the kind of job-seeking skills and preparation Weiss spent her college years honing. Graduates are competing with legions of laid-off workers as well as last year's graduates who have yet to find satisfying work, according to economist Philip Gardner of the College Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. But he remains "cautiously optimistic."

"Last year was catastrophic. We don't see it getting any worse, but we don't see it getting better anytime quick," said Gardner, who assembles an annual recruiting-trends report based on surveys of more than 900 businesses. "We are seeing ripples now of employers becoming more active. Is it enough to clear all the students? No."

In fact Gardner fears this slump may persist for at least another year.

"If this drags on to 2012-13, then we have five classes out there. You have some tragedy potential there," Gardner says. "Any time you run in to periods where you are not attached to the labor market, your skills obsolesce, you lose your contacts and networks. It becomes a deeper hole you have to climb out of. The societal impacts are huge."

A main cause of concern is that the jobless rate continues to hover near 10 percent even though the recession appears to be ending. And studies of those who entered the job market during past recessions exhibited much lower lifetime earning on average. Could this one-two punch keep this year's graduates down for years to come?

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Glimmers of recovery » Some promising signs emerged last month, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

Employers expect to hire 5.3 percent more new college graduates from the class of 2010 than they hired from the class of 2009, said Marilyn Mackes, NACE executive director. More than 37 percent of the responding businesses expect to increase college hiring, with retail showing the strongest rebound. Meanwhile 25 percent of graduates have found jobs, up from 19.7 at this time last year, according to a NACE survey released this week.

Still looking is U. graduate Michael McFall, who hopes to break into print journalism.

"It feels a little like I'm buying a ticket on the Titanic. I'm willing to ride the Titanic until it sinks," said McFall, who served as news editor for the campus newspaper and is interviewing with the Ogden Standard-Examiner . "I don't have a face for TV or a voice for radio. It's scary, especially for someone who is new and doesn't have credentials."

Utah career counselors say the state is well-positioned to weather the nation's economic downturn, with relatively strong regional employment, although there are some ominous signs, such as layoffs at ATK's northern Utah plant.

"We have lost a few employers, but from a national perspective, not many," said Stan Inman, director of career services at the U. "We have seen a marked increase in interest in internships."

Education and government jobs are seeing poor growth thanks to budget-cutting moves, but the National Security Agency is building a billion dollar data center at Camp Williams that could greatly expand federal hiring in the coming years.

According to the U.'s informal "cap and gown" survey, conducted over three days in April at the campus bookstore, nearly half the U. graduates plan to continue seeking jobs. Of the 450 who responded, 24 percent said they will continue working in their current jobs and another 13 percent reported accepting new job offers, Inman said.

Unemployed grads should keep their job searches active, even if no one is calling them back, career counselors say. Opportunities will arise, but they will be fleeting.

"You've got to network like crazy," said Dave Waddell, career adviser at Brigham Young University. "Take a floor-sweeping job if that's what you have to do to get into an organization. And be flexible. You have to be willing to go somewhere else."

BYU mechanical engineering graduate Kyle Smith is heading to Virginia for a job. He got started late on his job search, but got a lucky break when GE invited him to interview.

"I didn't have internships on my résumé. I applied online everywhere I could and started networking. My goal was to have an interview every week in March," Smith said. Perhaps what impressed the GE interviewers was Smith's participation on an interdisciplinary student team that designed and built from scratch a prosthetic hand for a young St. George mother who lost fingers to an infection. The student team spent two semesters solving the problem and ended up fitting the mother with a prosthesis that allows her to manipulate small objects. BYU holds a provisional patent on it.

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Doing everything right » Midway through college, Alexandra Weiss saw the economy heading south and stepped up her preparation. She gained critical experience and contacts through the University Venture Fund, the U. program that allows students to become fund managers. One of the fund's associates helped her get the interview at Bain.

"Just having a degree is not going to get the job you want," Weiss said. "You have to figure out what you want and tell people. You never know who has that connection."

She became president of Top Jobs, the U.'s finance honors society where students cultivate their job-finding abilities and attractiveness to the best employers.

"You have to fight really hard to get these jobs. Even if you are well qualified you might not get an interview because you're from the U.," she says. " The top 5 or 10 percent of U. graduates are as good as from any school, but they sometimes get discounted."

bmaffly@sltrib.com