For nearly 6,900 students who graduated Sunday at colleges around the state, the natural question is: What's next?
Happily, this year's graduates have more reason to be optimistic than those who graduated two or three years ago, although the market has not yet returned to pre-recession health.
The unemployment rate for college graduates younger than 25 averaged 8.8 percent over the 12 months that ended in February 2013, down from more than 10 percent in 2010 and 2011, according to an Economic Policy Institute study released last month. But the picture is still not as rosy as before the recession, when the rate was 5.7 percent.
"We hit the iceberg in 2008, and 2009 wasn't much better," said John Kniering, director of career services at University of Hartford. "2010 and 2011 was a mild improvement; 2012 seems to be significant improvement. While I'm thinking 2013 will be incrementally better, I'm not expecting it to be much better."
Briana Livingston, a UHart marketing major from Staten Island, graduated Sunday and started her new job last Monday. Livingston, who began looking for a job in January, cast a wide net, applying for positions in New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Florida and California.
She had interned for broadcasters and a music label during college, but was not set on having a job in a glamorous field.
"Sometimes the jobs I had real high hopes for put me down," Livingston said. But she was determined to get a job so that she wouldn't have to go back to her parents' house. "I feel like everybody telling me no helped me a lot. I felt like somebody eventually was going to tell me yes."
Livingston is a project manager at a marketing services firm in Norwalk, a job she found on Craigslist. Fairfield County is the part of the state that added jobs at the fastest clip in April. first job pays $35,000 a year, with benefits. She's thrilled. It will mean tight budgeting to get her own apartment and pay off her college loans of about $300 a month, but she's ready.
The University of Hartford's placement rate is nearly back to pre-recession levels, according to responses to a survey. Last year, 63 percent had full-time jobs six months after graduation, up from 55 percent in 2011 and just 41 percent in 2010. In 2007, the full-time workers were 65 percent of recent graduates.
"There just seems to be an increasing sense of optimism out there," said Michael Petro, assistant director for employer relations at UConn's career center. He noted that there are still 700 job listings on the university's internal system. The most recent placement data from UConn, from 2011, showed that 56 percent of graduates had full-time jobs six months out. In 2007, 66 percent were employed full-time.
It's harder for job seekers who feel they can't move away from an area that is suffering the job doldrums, like southeastern Connecticut.
Jessica Donnel, 26, graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University on Tuesday with a degree in business, and hasn't had a single job interview this year. She's applied for a receptionist job, and a couple of jobs in human resources at the casinos, where she used to work. She has seen so few career-track jobs in southeastern Connecticut this year that her total application tally hasn't even reached the double digits.
"I would like a 9-to-5 job that would allow me to move up the ladder," she said, but she's not feeling that confident she'll find one in southeast Connecticut, where she lives with her parents and her 5-year-old son.
"Part of that is Pfizer closing down all their branches. Electric Boat's holding its own, but if they change things for the sub base. … I was at the casino for two years, I could see it going slower and slower," she said.
Donnel has a part-time job bartending in Groton, but doesn't expect to get more hours after graduation.
"I'm scared. I have no idea what's going to happen. It makes me very nervous," she said. "A lot of people I'm graduating with, they're 20, 21, they don't have a kid. I've been out in the real world; I've worked. I have me and my son to worry about. I can't afford to fail."
Having a job waiting after graduation isn't the norm even in good times. Some students don't try to look for work in their last semester, knowing they can return home after graduation.
Tom Juncadella, another ECSU business major, from Guilford, falls into that group. He didn't visit his college career center either, though he has some ideas about going to work for an automobile manufacturer or a health-care related company.
"I've just been so busy," he said, between a Chamber of Commerce internship and his class load. "It's hard just having time to breathe."
Everyone interviewed for this report chose business- or engineering-related majors. Business is the most popular major — 25 percent of students choose it — and engineering graduates have traditionally had the highest salaries and the highest employment rate.
According to a 2011 study from Georgetown University that looked at college graduates of all ages in the labor force, the majors with the lowest unemployment were geological engineering, military technologies, pharmacology, student counseling, medical assisting, metallurgical engineering and occupational, physical, or respiratory therapy. The majors with the highest unemployment were social psychology, nuclear engineering, educational administration, biomedical engineering, linguistics and comparative literature, math and computer science, history, court reporting and counseling.
Christine Barry, a civil engineering major who graduated from the University of Hartford on Sunday, said choosing an in-demand major helps. None of her friends in biology have jobs.
More than half of biology undergraduates went on to graduate school, according to the Georgetown study, and they had the largest return in salary for getting more education.
Networking's usefulness is proved once again through Barry's job search story. She attended a Connecticut Society for Civil Engineers function, and a man there told her about a construction and engineering specialty career fair at Central Connecticut State University, and suggested she go. Even though it's not typical for students from one school to take advantage of another's job fair, she figured it couldn't hurt. In fact, that's how she found the job she chose.
She researched the companies before she went, made the rounds of the companies she thought would have the best opportunities, and sent follow-up emails to each recruiter that night, mentioning either something he had said or something she had touched on.
In June, she'll start a project engineering job at Whiting-Turner, which means she'll run a project from estimating and bidding to overseeing construction. Barry said the starting salary is in line with the typical starting salary for civil engineers — according to engineering.com, that's close to $50,000.
Barry will return to her parents' home in Prospect as she commutes to her job in Shelton, and plans to pay off her loans in the next few years. Before this offer, Barry turned down offers from two companies in Virginia, where she interned last summer, because she wasn't excited about designing sound walls along highways or training to manage asphalt paving projects.
She still would like to leave Connecticut one day, and with a national company like Whiting-Turner, she thinks that could be easier.
Barry said that of the 14 classmates in her program, by mid-May, six had jobs lined up, though others were headed to grad school or have paid internships.
Fellow UHart student Patrice Lofters picked a very practical major — insurance and finance.
Lofters, who will return to her mother's in New Haven this month, said: "I want to find a really good job soon." Even though she's an insurance major, she didn't apply at Traveler's, Aetna or Cigna, thinking they were out of her league.
Lofters will be working in a temporary clerical position at the university's business school this summer.
Last summer, she interned in North Haven with a company that sells mutual funds, annuities and life insurance, and she has an interview with them soon, though it may be a commission-only position. She also has several other job leads.
Lofters was offered a human resources generalist job in February, but the company wanted her to start right away. Still, that offer gives her hope that she will get a foothold on the career ladder and start paying $248 a month on her student loans.
The job hunt is harder than she thought. "You could email your resume to tons and tons of places, and you get nothing back," she said. "And the ones you do hear back from, they're commission based."
Michel Theodore, who has been working his way through CCSU for the last six years with an $11-an-hour retail job, isn't too worried. Theodore, who graduated Saturday with an electronics technology degree, just got a call from a recruiter looking for a tech support specialist. Theodore, who grew up in Stamford, is staying in his shared apartment in New Britain after graduation.
"I think by the end of the summer I'll fall into something," he said. A friend of his who graduated a year ago from CCSU's engineering program found a job four months after graduation.