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Rush weeks

College-graduation season unleashes a new wave of job-seekers. This year, many will converge on a low number of positions.

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The latest crop of college grads will soon take final exams, but the toughest test they may face this year is finding a job.

"Right now, I know the economy's pretty tough, and I just want to get a foot in the door somewhere," says Justin Smith, a Columbia University student from San Francisco.

"My friends are pessimistic," he said at a recent job fair at Columbia's New York campus, "but they're trying to make do. A couple of them have actually had some good offers. They're not in the jobs they want to be [in], but they're employed and they're getting started."

The outlook is dim, says Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). "Given the economic environment, spring recruiting has really slowed down. About 62 percent of our schools tell us they expect fewer employers on campus this spring than last year."

That will translate to nearly 4 percent fewer job offers for spring graduates, according to the NACE survey of more than 300 employers, firms responsible for hiring some 24,000 grads last year. "This has implications whether you're talking about salaries, signing bonuses, or job-search strategies for students," says Ms. Mackes.

There are wide regional differences in the employment picture, with NACE surveys mirroring regional unemployment data. Employers in the Midwest plan to increase by 11.2 percent.

But employers it polled in the Northeast expect to hire 8.1 percent fewer new graduates, those in the South 1.5 percent fewer, and the West 15.7 percent fewer.

As James Lewellis, a Columbia graduate student in international finance, from Whitehall, Pa., puts it, "It's an atmosphere where everyone has to step up their game and play it a lot smarter and more focused."

Competition for slots in the workforce promises to be fierce. As of the end of March, nearly 8.5 million Americans were looking for work, 221,000 more than at the same time last year.

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