FORTUNE — Millions of graduates are pouring out of U.S. campuses and flooding the job market this spring. Students have sprung from vocational centers, nearby community colleges, small liberal arts schools, and university systems, hoping for a return on their educational investment.
But the economy has yet to absorb more than half of last year’s hopefuls, and this year’s influx of job seekers could push the nation’s 8.2% jobless rate even higher, along with underemployment, which tops 16%. And even for the lucky who have secured work, statistics show that their earnings will generally start lower and stay depressed relative to those who entered the job market in stronger economies.
The 2012 graduates’ elation can easily transform into the unemployeds’ deflation. For the Millennials fixed on the news reports and the numbers, opportunities are far from obvious. But there are promising employment prospects out there, and jobseekers should quickly take stock of what’s available and how to position themselves for those openings. The basic question: how do you distinguish yourself in a market stuffed with people who lack the skills and the credentials to get noticed?
Here’s some advice for the millions new to the labor market and some practical steps for the many millions more still making their way through school:
Find a solid mentor
The fastest and most effective way for current students and recent graduates to explore career paths is to pair up with workers who volunteer their time to help new jobseekers find their course. You can find your match in one of thousands of chambers of commerce or schools. National organizations focus on discreet populations and skills: ethnic minorities in marketing; women in finance; STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) focused job seekers.
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Better yet, take an internship and build a relationship with a mentor while there. While most interns are poorly paid, if they receive any pay at all, the remuneration can be on-the-job experience and help from colleagues. Show initiative, and you’ll likely have a more interesting experience. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that both public and private employers boosted intern hiring this year, and a staggering 40% of their new payroll hires this year will come from their intern pools.
Abandon manufacturing stereotypes
When it comes to manufacturing work, it’s best to throw out those outdated and distorted pictures of factory workers on the assembly line doing isolated, mind-numbing, repetitive tasks. Today, automated, high-tech, customer-specific, tailored functions largely define the nation’s manufacturing landscape.
Stubbornly perceived as dirty, dumb, and backbreaking and spurned by parents who advise their children to seek more in life, manufacturing suffers from a bad rep and a skills gap. A 2011 Deloitte survey of nearly 1,100 manufacturing executives indicates that U.S. manufacturing firms have upwards of 600,000 skilled positions open and project a widening gap between the numbers of openings and available talent. Manufacturers simply cannot find enough electrical engineers, lab technicians, hydraulic specialists, and people who make and run what we use everyday. Think aerospace, chemicals and plastics, communications technology, earth-moving equipment, analytical instruments, precision medical devices, biopharmaceuticals, the list goes on.
Take on a technical skill
Community colleges, vocational training centers, and labor unions all offer programs that train workers. And increasingly, employers that are short on skilled talent are pairing up with those programs or developing their own. Consider welding. While the U.S. Department of Labor forecasts faster than average growth for this industry, the American Welding Society says it’s practically blinding, with hundreds of thousands of positions open and continuing job growth over the next several years. As is the case with many of the trades, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada offers short-term apprenticeships. This is one of many ways to give trainees marketable and portable credentials that offer good pay and put people on a promising career track.
STEM: Where the jobs are
The Commerce Department expects science, technology, engineering, and math occupations to grow by 17% over the next several years, compared with 10% in other occupations. Yet only a third of BAs are in STEM fields (while student enrollment is growing overall, and there is a 50% bailout rate. The United States Naval Academy, one of the premier institutions in STEM fields, worries about this steep dropout rate. It surveyed programs around the country and found that 90% of the students who step out of STEM say it’s due to poor teaching; and 70% of those who remain say they had poor educators. Attrition among STEM students does not portend well for the severe shortages in highly sensitive areas like nuclear energy, where new hires are nowhere near the runaway retirement rates.
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Insist on first-rate teachers. Approach STEM professionals for their guidance. Get practical experience by working in an architect’s office, a science lab, a music studio, or get a gig as an engineer’s apprentice. STEM in the humanities? STEM is scaling what works in the social services — how to take great programs for the homeless, for example, and replicate them, community-by-community, nationwide. And civics: think recycling, social media campaigns, and law enforcement strategies. You’ll quickly discover that STEM has a much broader reach than the acronym suggests.
Government agencies, non-profits, industry groups, and private companies all offer incentives designed to fill STEM jobs. Many are posted on websites. Among the latest, SETforJOBS, which offers information on STEM scholarships, job postings, and the paths required to qualify for them. Hosted by the Entertainment Industries Council, along with a coalition of employers — from aerospace to animation firms – they are intent on wooing students and new entrants into the job market.
Temp work can lead to full-time work
Passing over the temp service ads because you prefer to put your energy into the “permanent job” search? Think again. Temporary work cuts into the Catch-22 “can’t get a job until you have job experience” by giving you work, a reference, a paycheck, and a window into myriad companies, industries, and sectors to explore. Most temp placement agencies operate nationwide, offer discreet job training, and know the pulse of hiring in the U.S. and abroad. A striking number of the temp placement firm Manpower’s positions, for example, lead to full-time jobs with benefits. During the height of recession, the temp firm reported, that number was a stunning 40%.
Anticipate future openings
Your dream job may not be available now, but it could be in the near future, given the dramatic wave of retirements across the public and private sectors.
Over the next decade, for example, public-private utilities, from electricity to water, stand to lose 50% of their employees. Oil and gas workers, from power plant operators to transmission and pipeline workers, are 50 years old on average, nearly a decade older than the typical American worker, and they’re retiring at a much faster rate than they’re being replaced. And then there’s the public sector: within three to five years, roughly a third of the entire public labor force — teachers, technicians, engineers, plant managers, maintenance workers — will be eligible to retire.
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Know your prospects. Contact public and private sector recruiting offices. Determine the coursework you may need, the skills you must have to fit into that job. No room on the payroll yet? Be bold in your outreach to firms as you seek fieldwork and internships – during the school year, the summer, after graduation.
Your experience, your contacts, and your mentor can help you move into the working world. Unlike the 41% of current workers who have no clue how to make themselves more marketable for the rapidly changing labor market, you’ll be focused.
New graduates are entering the U.S. labor market at a time of historic difficulty for all jobseekers. The data would be much worse if the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reflected the numbers of discouraged Americans who have given up on the active job search, and simply aren’t counted. But the working world offers as much promise as peril. The latest generation to enter this fray seems to know this.
Impressively, the Millennials still believe they will one day live the American Dream. Once the majority of them factor in the skills they need to seize current and future job opportunities, they will grow into a pool of talent that employers will want to soak up.