Thomas Rumeau already had a bachelor's degree in economics but decided that a master's in public policy would make him more marketable. Three months after earning that...

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WASHINGTON — Thomas Rumeau already had a bachelor’s degree in economics but decided that a master’s in public policy would make him more marketable.

Three months after earning that master’s from the University of Maryland, he still hasn’t found a job in his field and is settling for part-time work at the university’s career center. Thirty years old and married with a baby on the way, he is working alongside undergraduates nearly 10 years younger.

Since February, he has applied for about 60 positions as a researcher or analyst for the federal government, the state government, nonprofit organizations, private companies, associations — anyplace that came to mind.

“I didn’t think it would take this long,” Rumeau said. “It’s even hard just to get an interview.”

Rumeau is a victim of bad timing. During robust economic times, college students in undergraduate and graduate-school programs would easily get multiple offers. But this year, as the economy teeters, college graduates face a tough job market, leaving many without work in their fields or doing jobs that people without college degrees can do, career-center officials said.

Most affected, the officials said, are those looking to break into the financial-services industry, hard hit by the subprime-mortgage crisis.

The numbers aren’t pretty. Unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds, the typical post-undergraduate age group, is sharply higher than for the overall population. In the second quarter of this year, joblessness among this group reached 9.8 percent, according to the Labor Department. That is up from 7.7 percent last year at this time and 8.1 percent in the second quarter of 2001, about the time the last recession hit. Overall, unemployment rose to 5.7 percent in July from 5.5 percent the previous month, and the economy lost 51,000 payroll jobs.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers said employers offered higher starting salaries this year. That said, the increase in hiring of recent college grads, especially in the financial-services industry, has dropped considerably. Employers were expected to increase hiring 8 percent for the class of 2008, sharply below the 17.4 percent surge for the class of 2007.

“We’re trying to get them thinking about and planning for Plan B and Plan C in the event their first choice is not available,” said Jeannette Frett, assistant dean and director of MBA career management at Georgetown University.

The most desirable job candidates, career-center officials and recruiters said, are those with engineering, information-technology, math and science degrees. The job market in industries such as health care, information technology, accounting and biotechnology remains strong. There are also geographic differences.

“The jobs dried up”

Michael Stearns, 30, is hoping his Plan A will still pan out. A recent graduate of Georgetown’s MBA program, he has been searching for a management-consulting or marketing job since last year. He has applied to about 50 companies in Boston and New York and all over the West Coast.

“The first semester, the economy was still good. Jobs were aplenty. I didn’t think there would be problems,” he said. “But as soon as 2008 hit, the economy took a big downturn, and the jobs dried up. From last year to this year it’s changed quite a bit, and it’s definitely been more difficult than I had anticipated.”

That’s about the time that Helen Stefan Moreau, president of the Midtown Group, a hiring agency in Washington, D.C., noticed a shift, with several law firms, financial-services companies and nonprofit organizations instituting hiring freezes. Many freezes have been lifted and jobs are available, she said, but applicants still have to be a lot more competitive these days.

“This market is one that just really needs to be navigated,” she said. “It’s not like the old days where someone could pop a résumé out there and get 15 interviews and five offers. You have to seek out opportunities more than in the past. In the past, they were coming to you.”

The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., found that college graduates also might be worse off in other ways. After analyzing figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the institute found a 5 percentage-point decrease since 2001 in college graduates getting health-insurance coverage. Fewer than half of young college graduates receive any form of pension coverage, the institute reported.

“Having a college degree is not the guarantee of a good job with benefits the way it used to be,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute. “And college graduates are now being affected by the kind of squeeze being put on the middle class and blue-collar workers for a long time.”

Paul Harrington, an economist at Northeastern University, also found that about 38 percent of young college graduates are “underemployed,” or doing work for which they are overqualified.

“It’s a loss of resources. It’s a social loss. These are bright people who could be engaged in more productive activities, but … we haven’t figured out how to move them into productive activities,” he said. “That’s the tragedy of a recession.”

Inventing his own job

Triston McIntyre, a 23-year-old English and political-science major at the University of Maryland, decided to take a more creative route to employment when he graduates this fall. He started his own business, partnering with a fellow blogger to create a Web site — — that trains businesses in how to create a presence in social media and the Internet.

“Mainly, the reason I’m doing this is because there are not a lot of jobs, and I would rather be my own boss,” he said.

Some career-center officials said they have heard of job offers being rescinded or jobs changing or being eliminated after graduates arrive at work. Others say undergraduates are planning to wait out the economic downturn in graduate school.

Recruiters painted a mixed picture.

Tim Namie, area manager for Manpower Professional, a hiring agency, said jobs are available but there are many more applicants to fill them. Ordinarily, when his recruiters post a job, they receive 100 or 150 résumés. Now they are getting more than 200.

“In a tight labor market like this, I would say employers are looking for the upper hand and trying to get more bang for their buck,” he said. “They’re looking for different things. They’re looking for the internship. They’re looking for someone who is more aggressive.”

Advice for coping

How does one stand out in a market like this?

Don’t rely only on and other Web sites that match employers with job candidates, said recruiters and career-center officials. If you are in college now, get as much experience as you can in your field through internships or part-time work, even if it is unpaid.

Start your job search early, at least a semester or even a year ahead of graduation. Network as much as you can. Reach out to alumni. Join professional associations. Use connections you have through relatives and friends.

“A lot of students have pride. They don’t want to ask Mom and Dad for connections, but you need to tap into every network you have,” said Harold L. Gray Sr., director of Harvard’s Center for Professional Development and the Center for Insurance Education.

And be open to jobs you might not have considered before. Mark Kenyon, associate director of the University of Maryland’s career center, said many students he has counseled were considering jobs in the federal government when in the past they would have looked only at higher-paying, private-sector jobs.

“As recent graduates coming out of college, they need to be open to multiple types of career opportunities,” he said, adding that most of his students found jobs.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed

to this report.