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US: Job prospects plummet

After five years of annual increases in employment, hiring of college graduates is expected to fall by 22% in 2009 compared to 2008, according to a survey of businesses by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. More than 20% of employers surveyed have stopped hiring this spring. The number of firms expecting to hire fewer new graduates doubled and the number who were uncertain of future hiring plans, jumped from one in four to nearly half.

But recruitment advertisers say the downturn is not universal across America. A few states such as Texas and Wyoming have a tax base in oil or minerals and are not part of the economic decline so academic hiring has remained steady if not robust. Most states with hard-hit industries or with tax shortfalls, however, have severely curtailed hiring in the business and academic sectors.

Graduates hoping to enter academia are likewise facing a much tighter market. Academics from the baby-boom generation, hired in the late 1960s, were expected to have begun retiring by now. This would have caused an unprecedented demand for assistant professors but, unwilling to lock-in much lower benefit levels, a substantial number of senior professors are holding off retirement.

Combined with widespread hiring freezes, graduates are seeing reduced numbers of university recruiting advertisements. And more recruiting ads have been using the hedge "pending funding" or equivalent wording.

With most state tax revenues declining at sporadic rates, there has been an increase in searches being called off, sometimes during the final interview. A comparison of general recruitment advertising in the Chronicle of Higher Education these last few months, compared with a year ago, shows a significant decline in ad number in most fields.

While recruitment ad numbers have not dropped in all specialty field publications, the overlap of ads has decreased, indicating many employers are narrowing their range. This trend from decentralised to centralised recruiting reflects a need to economise and a glut of applicants.

For public universities, there is growing concern that the longer the hiring freeze remains in place, the more likely administration will shift to employing part-time adjuncts as a permanent "solution" that provides "fiscal flexibility". In addition, some graduate students have indicated a likelihood of delaying their graduation since a research assistantship is more secure than no job at all.

At public universities, programmes and curricula that would normally be supported are being cut as legislators and administrators apply criteria for "efficiency" and eliminate the lower enrolment fields. This is accelerating as more students shift back to lower-tuition community colleges and ask "can I get a job with this degree?"

As a result, liberal arts programmes are more likely to be cut, contributing to a spiraling down in academic job opportunities.

About the only positive sector of employment for graduates nationwide is alternative route teaching. Although K-12 education is taking some funding cuts, public school teaching is considered a more secure job. Recent graduates with non-teaching degrees related to teaching in shortage areas such as mathematics and science are finding ready employment through alternate route programmes nationwide.

While employers and universities mostly retrench to ride out the economic decline, graduates may find the job market still good in Hong Kong, the Middle East and much of Asia. With India and China expanding university capacity, any sustained economic disparity may contribute to a US brain drain in the business and science fields
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