Katie Scarmardo envisions herself working at a nonprofit group, helping youngsters cope with grief or trauma. She thinks the work will be fulfilling, even if it won't make her rich.
But she's learning that finding the perfect job isn't easy.
"I'm not even getting interviews," said Scarmardo, 23, who graduated from the University of North Texas in May and has been aggressively looking for work since returning from volunteer work in India over the summer.
With her wedding planned for this weekend, she has temporarily put her job search on hold but plans to broaden it in the new year.
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"After Jan. 1, I'm going to look at every job that I can apply for," she said.
For recent college graduates, the job market has rarely been more competitive.
While vying for paychecks with other aggressive young candidates, they must also compete with older, experienced workers who have lost jobs.
With the economic recovery still weak, employers remain uncertain about how many college graduates they will hire in upcoming months.
Some recent grads are concerned that they won't land a job in their chosen field. They worry about being unemployed for too long and not being able to earn enough money to pay back student loans or begin saving for their futures.
"I basically live off of my parents," said Elizabeth Knighten, a May 2009 journalism graduate of the University of North Texas who is an unpaid intern at a Dallas publication. "I love writing. I love my internship. It comes at a price."
Unemployment spiked in recent years across the board and in every part of the country.
Nationwide, the unemployment rate was 9.6 percent in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 7.9 percent in Fort Worth-Arlington. U.S. data for November was to be released today.
It may be little consolation, but experts said the job market is far friendlier to young people with college degrees than to other groups. For example, the unemployment rate for people 25 and over with a bachelor's degree or higher was 3.9 percent in the Metroplex in 2009, but it was 9.5 percent for those with less than a high school diploma.
"Everyone has been impacted," said Cheryl Abbot, regional economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Dallas. "Everyone probably feels worse right now than they did a year ago or two years ago. The difference is that if you have a higher education, your odds of having a job today are still so much better than people with lower education levels."
Still, even this group has seen better times. For example, in 2000, the highest the unemployment rate reached for young college grads was 1.9 percent.
Darla Doty, director of career services at Tarleton State University, said students and alumni are doing everything they can to stand out to potential employers. Alumni are telling her they're concerned about not finding jobs in their fields of study or having to take part-time work.
As school districts, cities and companies tightened their budgets, work became harder to come by, she said. "They just need their paycheck," Doty said.
Scarmardo said she has sent résumés to nonprofits, searched the craigslist online classified ads and attended job fairs promoted by UNT, where she earned a degree in development and family studies.
She has tallied 2,000 volunteer hours and kept a 3.9 grade-point average in college, but that hasn't helped her get noticed yet. In India this summer, she helped build bathrooms and community centers for rural residents with leprosy and other diseases.
"You have to volunteer and have an in before you get a job," she said. "I need something to financially support myself."
She and her fiance recently attended a UNT career fair. She didn't find work, but her boyfriend, who has a degree in general studies, was hired to set up allergy labs. She lives in Arlington but plans to move to Lewisville, where she has more connections.
College career experts said many recent graduates have found work, especially if they majored in nursing, accounting or engineering. College graduates with other degrees can find jobs too, but they need to be prepared to adjust to what the job market offers.
"You can't just walk into career services with your cap and gown and say, 'I think I need a job,'" said Sherri Mata, director of career services at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.
Cheri Butler, associate director of the Career Center at the University of Texas at Arlington, said some segments of the economy are hiring. For example, the federal government hires people in many fields from accountants to engineers to architects. There are also growing opportunities in jobs dealing with sustainability, including the hospitality sector.
"You have got to think outside the box with regard to what is out there," Butler said.
Companies are still hiring college graduates, though not as many as before. Grads can find hope in a recent study by Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute, which indicated that overall hiring is expected to increase 3 percent across degrees. The university's Recruiting Trends 2010-2011 survey also says hiring at the bachelor's level may surge 10 percent. In Texas, which is part of the study's South-Central region, hiring at the bachelor's level is expected to increase 8 percent.
Experts said the ideal situation is to network and find job openings that haven't yet been posted -- the so-called hidden job market.
"They say 80 percent of jobs are never advertised," said Susan Nethery, Texas Christian University's director of student affairs marketing.
Paul Pausky, associate director for former student career services at Texas A&M, said young people need to figure out how they fit in the market.
"Don't assume your major is in demand or isn't in demand," Pausky said.
Shayna Fawcett, a 22-year-old senior at TCU, started planning for the work force early. When she graduates in May, she will have a degree in film, television and digital media with a minor that merges advertising, public relations and business. She has worked part time and is on her sixth internship.
"Having this background will set me apart," she said.
Fawcett keeps her résumé and portfolio up to date so she can send them to potential employers via e-mail. She uses an iTCU career app on her smartphone to find out about job fairs and get interviewing tips. She also uses Facebook for alerts. She routinely visits TCU's career services to retool her résumé or interview with companies visiting the campus.
"I'm pretty persistent," Fawcett said. "I know I want to have a very good job when I graduate from college."
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675