'Flexible' degrees pave graduates' path Jobs in chemistry, computers abound; other fields lag


Faith Shen is one of the few, the proud, the employed members of the college class of 1992, the largest class in history.

Ms. Shen graduated in May with a degree in chemistry from the University of Maryland College Park, and within two weeks she had landed a job with the National Cancer Institute in Frederick.

Ms. Shen's sister, who graduated from the same school in 1991 with an electrical engineering degree, is still jobless. Ms. Shen's boyfriend has a similar story. He earned an electrical engineering degree from UM three years ago but couldn't find a job and went on to graduate school.

This year, the nation's 1.1 million college graduates are having a tough time finding jobs. The recession will cause the demand for graduates with bachelor's degrees to drop 4 percent this year, and engineering hiring will drop 5 percent, according to the Lindquist-Endicott Report from Northwestern University.

But some graduates -- Ms. Shen, for example -- are still in demand.

Hiring of graduates with degrees in computer science and chemistry will rise 5 percent and 4 percent respectively, according to the Lindquist-Endicott survey of 259 medium-sized to large businesses.

What is behind these aberrations?

Area university officials say it has a lot to do with the fields' flexibility. "Chemistry is often called the central science because it touches on everything. . . . Everyone needs chemistry," said William Harwood, director of the undergraduate program in chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland College Park.

The boom in biotechnology and consumer demand for new pharmaceuticals are fueling job growth in chemistry, Mr. Harwood said. Along with biotechnology companies, other area companies such as Nova Pharmaceutical Corp., Noxell Corp., W. R. Grace & Co. and McCormick & Co. Inc. also need chemists, he noted.

"We rarely turn down requests for job fairs," said Francine Quint, personnel director for Maryland Medical, the largest independently owned chemical laboratory in the state. The Baltimore County company is seeking employees with science and computer backgrounds for technician and technologist jobs.

"Unemployment among chemists is 1 percent nationally," said Dr. Catherine Fenselau, chairwoman of the chemistry department at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. And the field continues to grow because it involves research as well as manufacturing. Chemists make discoveries that attract capital investment," she said.

Flexibility also makes the standard computer science degree marketable, said Gerald Masson, computer science chairman at the Johns Hopkins University. Many of the computer science graduates who immediately go to work, many are linking their skills with other areas including industrial relations, economics, chemistry and biology, he said.

As the workplace becomes more complex, the demand for people with quantitative analytical skills is increasing, said Victor Lindquist, a Northwestern dean and author of the 46th annual Lindquist-Endicott report. Since computer science and chemistry require such skills, graduates in those fields will have an edge in the job market, he said.

Take Phyllis Schneck, a Hopkins graduate in in computer science. She has been working for MITRE Corp. of Northern Virginia for more than a year and is helping create software that would allow the U.S. Postal Service to choose the best contract bids.

Even in chemistry and computer science, however, there are no guarantees.

In the early 1980s, many chemical companies restructured their operations and cut down on recruiting.

And the computer industry is going through an "unprecedented change" today, said Charles Nicholas, chairman of the computer science graduate program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. As computer hardware companies such as International Business Machines Corp. and Unisys lay off people in large numbers, many of the industry's jobs are being created by software manufacturers such as Microsoft Corp.

But compared with other fields, technical areas such as chemistry and computer science are healthy and likely to grow.

The computer industry, for example, will grow because of the race to develop new technologies. "I see no reason to believe that [technological advances] will not continue for the next 10 or 20 years," Mr. Masson said. "It will keep getting better."

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