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College seniors heading home for the holidays may not be as merry as they were a year ago, or two years ago, or five years ago. Many don't yet have jobs and may not find jobs anytime soon.

"The market is softer and more competitive than last year," says Victor Lindquist, placement director at Northwestern University, who conducts an annual survey of business and industry. "Students will have to look longer and harder for a job."Even the 1991 graduates with master's degrees in business administration are getting less attention than usual from recruiters.

"It may be tougher for MBAs because they earn higher pay," says William Shenkir, dean of the McIntyre School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. "Most companies are cautious. Even the Big 6 accounting firms are slow bringing in students for office visits."

Shenkir says company recruiters are "showing the flag" at business schools but scheduling fewer interviews when they arrive. In some cases, they aren't coming at all.

This is not to say that job prospects are as bleak as they were in 1982 and 1983, at the end of the last recession. Some members of the class of 1991 are being hired, often at starting salaries higher than they would have received last year.

"It's mystifying," says Lindquist. "There are exceptions to the hiring slowdown in almost every field, and that includes high-tech and investment banking."

He thinks the Midwest is riding out the current economic slump better than the coasts because it never had the financial excesses of Wall Street speculation, massive military spending and what he calls "outrageous" consulting fees.

Boston and New York have gone from flash to fizzle, deflating real estate values in the process. Even recession-proof Washington is feeling the pinch of slower growth.

Manufacturing has held up better than most industries, mainly because of strong export markets overseas. Jobs are available in the health sciences, but banking is in shock after the go-go 1980s.

Engineers, no doubt, will be getting more job offers at higher pay than most college graduates. If oil prices stay high, more jobs will be available for chemical and petroleum engineers.

Some companies are looking for people who can improve information systems, but others are sticking with the old computers to save money.

It's a mixed bag, at best, and a daunting prospect to young men and women who find little demand for their talents and services.

Normally, enrollment in business schools increases during a recession. The theory is that majoring in something cultural like history or English is a sure way to become unemployed.

Lindquist isn't sure that theory is valid. His surveys seem to show that liberal arts graduates - when they find jobs - earn starting salaries almost as high as students with undergraduate degrees in business, economics or finance.