Matt Barra was excited. He was about to head to Ohio for a final interview for a job at a financial services firm that would start after he graduates from the University of Notre Dame next May.
Barra, a 21-year-old finance major, had done well in two initial interviews. But last week, he got a call: The interview was canceled. With the sour economy, the firm was no longer hiring.
"For people graduating now and next year, it's not looking good," Barra said.
Many students about to graduate are finding fewer jobs and fewer companies even willing to offer interviews. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that about half of all companies were cutting back on the number of 2009 graduates they plan to hire. While many companies surveyed in August planned to increase hiring substantially, the new poll showed things had changed and the new number of expected hires would essentially equal the number hired last year.
Companies in fields including agriculture, construction, utilities, trade, finance, insurance and business services all said they planned to cut back from their August projections, said Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the association.
Counselors at Chicago area colleges say companies are still recruiting new grads but fewer jobs are advertised and, in some cases, fewer recruiters coming to campus.
At the University of Chicago, the number of companies at a recent job fair dropped from 100 to 80, in part because of the economy and also because many companies want to hire more interns, a trend that started before the slowdown. The number of full-time positions posted at the DePaul University Career Center has fallen 40 percent in a year, to fewer than 1,000 this fall. Posted internships have fallen 15 percent, to 456.
"Companies are being more cautious," said Gillian Steele, managing director of DePaul's career center, particularly in sales and finance.
Northwestern University has seen investment banks cancel interviews, while consulting firms are hiring, but at a reduced rate, said Lonnie Dunlap, the school's director of university career services.
"A number of companies ... are taking a 'wait-and-see' approach because of all the uncertainty," she said. "We don't know what to expect from winter and spring recruiting."
DePaul senior Lauren Gebbie, 21, of Downstate Itoscoe, said she might have to readjust her goal of working at a financial firm. "A lot of people have been telling me to rethink it," she said. Gebbie said she has spent days searching online for jobs, with no luck. "I'm really frustrated by it," said Gebbie, who's now looking for an internship instead and hoping it might turn into a full-time job.
Fear about the economy has resulted in more students hitting the pavement or the Web earlier in search of jobs, career counselors said. The number of employers at a Northern Illinois University job fair dropped from 240 to 205 this year, and the number of students attending rose from 1,000 to 1,300.
"There is an awareness that there may be fewer jobs, so people need to be more proactive," said Cindy Henderson, NIU's director of career services.
"There is a lot of panic going around," said Paige Hennessy, a marketing major at Notre Dame.
"I'm kind of just in limbo," said Hennessy, 21, of Western Springs. "They can't commit to you because they can't commit to anything right now."
Not all the news is bad: Loyola University officials said they haven't seen a drop in recruiting, while Northwestern said that its two job fairs were at capacity with employers. DePaul has still seen strong recruiting in marketing, management and software engineering. And the Illinois Institute of Technology drew a record number of companies 128 for a job fair in September.
Bruce Mueller, executive director of IIT's Career Management Center, said some fields have actually increased hiring, though a handful of financial services firms backed out of the fair "because they were bought out or went under."