Michael Gentry looked forward to graduating from Winthrop University this month and finding a job in his field.
But the undergraduate fine arts major changed his plans.
"I'm going to wait a little bit and keep my part-time job," said Gentry, who delivers pizzas to support his mixed-media sculpture work. "I'm not going to throw myself out there in this economy without a job."
Many fall graduates share his worry.
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On Saturday, Gentry joined 339 fellow undergraduates who marched across the graduation stage and into an uncertain and tumultuous job market.
South Carolina's unemployment rate topped 8 percent in November. Economists predict it could reach 14 percent by July with more than 300,000 people jobless.
The outlook turned gloomier this month when the Labor Department reported that employers nationwide in November shed more than a half-million jobs -- the most in 34 years.
While that's troubling for all jobseekers, there's even more reason for concern among college students preparing to enter the job market for the first time, according to a new report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Although college graduates typically have an easier time finding jobs than those with less education, employers are scaling back the hiring of new graduates dramatically.
The annual employers survey found that the hiring of new college graduates will remain relatively flat next spring, following double-digit increases in each of the prior five years.
Less than a third of the companies see the overall job market as "excellent" or "very good."
Last year, about two-thirds held that view. And the number of employers who saw the market as "fair" jumped from 6 percent last year to more than 25 percent this year.
Winthrop University career counselors believe jobs are available, but landing them may take longer than usual. The jobs also may not be in the exact field students want.
"I used to be able to tell a student that if you apply to 10 jobs you're qualified for, you'll get one to two interviews," said Amy Sullivan, Winthrop's director of career and civic engagement. "I wouldn't dare say that now."
Fewer recruiters than last year have contacted her office, Sullivan said.
"Before, recruiters were calling me saying 'Let us take you out to lunch,'" she said. "Now, I'm calling on them."
Despite the torrent of dour economic news, career counselors say the key for students is be optimistic and diligent.
"I have pretty realistic conversations with students," Sullivan said. "But I think you have to keep positive about it. They have to believe they're going to find work and (then) do the right things."
Charles Alvis, a Winthrop associate professor of business and director of professional opportunities, said students should "be very targeted in their job search" and start searching as early as their sophomore year.
Alvis advises students to read about industries they're interested in, make contacts and score internship and volunteer opportunities. That should help establish a presence, he said.
"It's definitely tough," said Andy Machek, who received a master's degree in business administration during Winthrop's Thursday commencement for graduate students. "A lot of my friends are having trouble. They're just running up against a lot of hiring freezes. Some of them are going to take jobs at Starbucks or fast food restaurants."
Machek said he was fortunate to land a job with the professional services firm Deloitte, where he was an intern.
One thing to remember, career counselors said, is having a degree helps. Unemployment rates for people with a bachelor's degree or higher have typically been less than half of the overall national rate recently, federal data show. And some employers like the idea of hiring recent graduates, who they could pay less than more seasoned job seekers.
But that doesn't make the job hunt any less daunting for recent graduates.
"It's harder to find things because businesses are downsizing and cutting back," said Angelo Geter, a Winthrop political science major who graduated Saturday and plans to attend graduate school in the fall and pursue a career in politics.
"I think it's a little scarier for us," he said. "Especially for those without something lined up."