They got their education during good economic times, but the nation's graduating college seniors are about to enter the job market just as conditions have rapidly taken a turn for the worse.
The federal government said yesterday that U.S. employers have cut jobs for three months straight, a total of 232,000 positions gone. The number of jobs lost in March - 80,000 - was the most in five years, when the country was struggling to throw off the lingering effects of the last recession. Economists are once again bandying about the "R" word on a daily basis.
That's depressing timing for Nikki Goh, who transferred from a school in Malaysia to Towson University two years ago because she believed the job opportunities here would be far better. When she graduates in May with a degree in mass communication, Goh, 22, will be heading back to Kuala Lumpur to regroup - and then to Britain to try to find work.
"When I came here, things looked amazing," Goh said yesterday. "But it is so difficult now to find a job."
The saving grace for graduating college students? Many employers made job offers far in advance - last fall, before things deteriorated.
"Most of the people I know either have jobs or have offers," said University of Maryland senior Drew Reid, 22, who plans on taking a management position with supermarket chain Wegmans.
Towson University student Leslie Kleinfelter, 22, is heading to Richmond, Va., where she'll start in an entry-level position with Genworth Financial.
"I locked this up in December," Kleinfelter said. "I had an internship there last summer. That just turned into a full-time job."
Companies surveyed in February by the National Association of Colleges and Employers said they intend to hire 8 percent more new grads than they did a year ago. That's half the increase they'd anticipated when they were surveyed last fall and is the weakest figure since 2003, when employers cut back on new-graduate hiring.
Job offers made last fall account for much of the increase, particularly in the Northeast - the region that includes Maryland.
"I kind of worry about the spring recruiting," said Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. "If you didn't accept that job offer in the fall, you may be regretting it at this point."
Industry and location matter, too.
Finance and construction, both pummeled by the housing slump, are hiring fewer graduating seniors than they did last year, the association's survey found. But utilities and government are doing a lot more hiring. And business services, a reliable draw for new graduates, expects to pick up 9 percent more students from the Class of '08 than '07.
The Northeast is the strongest region, with hiring expectations up nearly 13 percent over last year. Compare that with South, which is virtually flat.
"Locally, the Maryland unemployment rate is under 4 percent," said Kevin McIntyre, an associate professor of economics at McDaniel College in Westminster. "If that's not full employment, it's really, really close. Anecdotally, I haven't heard any concerns with students in my department having a hard time coming up with a job."
Economists say Maryland's job market has been holding up better than the nation's because local government continues to hire and the federal government continues to spend, giving contractors and consultants of all stripes a reason to add staff.
As businesses were cutting back nationwide, Maryland employers created 4,300 jobs in February, the most recent local numbers.
"I would characterize it as business as usual," said Mark Presnell, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Career Center. Some students are concerned because they don't have a job yet, "but I don't see any more of those students this year than any other year."
Krysta Moore of Severn, a Towson University student, is in that group. She went to her college's career center for an appointment with a counselor yesterday, looking for advice. She's trying to find a job teaching English overseas to prepare for a career in international health.
But the economy, she said, "is making me think again about being abroad. I'm kind of worried about when I come back. Am I going to be able to get a job? Will I be able to get into a master's program? I'm not sure. But this is my passion. This is what I really want to do."
Linda LeNoir, assistant director of student support services at the University of Maryland, is seeing more students who are anxious about how gloomy economic news might affect them. Nearly 4,900 undergraduates there expect to get their diplomas next month, along with 1,453 master's degree students and 450 doctoral candidates.
On the bright side, so many employers wanted space at the university's February career fair that it was expanded from two days to three and still had a long waiting list, LeNoir said.
Morgan State University had a similar experience planning its job fair, which is April 16. "We expected to have 60 or so employers registered, which is what we had last year," said Bill Carson, director of the university's Center for Career Development. "We have 83 registered and another 20 on a waiting list that we can't accommodate."
McIntyre, with McDaniel College, thinks most graduating seniors will be all right. It's the juniors, he says, who might want to worry.
"If this does turn into a pretty bad recession, they're the ones that are going to be feeling it - and probably sophomores too," he said.