For James Carroll, IT is the new plastics.

If the University of Utah senior played Dustin Hoffman's character in a 2009 remake of the 1967 film "The Graduate," Mr. McGuire's one word of a career advice to him would be: "information."

Carroll, who should be graduating this spring with a bachelor's degree in marketing, is doing more than thinking about it. He plans to remain in college next year to earn a second degree in information systems.

"When the market went south, it screwed up my plans for getting a job. The jobs I want to go after, a lot are not hiring anymore," says Carroll, a 21-year-old from Farmington. "I want to get into market research. Pretty much all marketing data is going online. Having that systems background will be a necessity for the field I want to get into."

Carroll belongs to a class of college students graduating into the weakest job market in a generation. Even though Utah's unemployment rate -- 4.1 percent -- is among the nation's lowest, joblessness is rapidly arcing upward as experienced job seekers flood the market, competing with fresh graduates, says Mark Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

"The only bright spot is health care. The rest are going to have a real struggle," he says. "This is the first graduating class that's up against a job market that says, 'I can use you in three or four years, but I can't use you now.' "

Nationally, employment opportunities will be down 8 percent for those with college degrees this spring, according to economist Philip Gardner, research director of the College Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

"We had four strong years. This one is contracting, not as bad as I would have anticipated, but it is getting worse. Some are continuing to hire even in the face of this economy," says Gardner, who assembles an annual recruiting-trends report based on surveys of more than 900 businesses. "One bright spot was small business, especially in the scientific professions, environmental science and biotech. They're hanging in there, but they're up against a wall trying to get credit because banks are just not lending money."

Still, employers continue flocking to campus career fairs.

"They want to retain a pipeline of new talent, otherwise they will lose visibility," says Stan Inman, director of the U.'s career services. "We are seeing less confidence. The number of employers has diminished and the opportunities are fewer than in fall. Students have to widen the range of opportunities they are looking for. There are excellent opportunities out there."

Pockets of opportunity » Job fairs connected U. senior Jamie Moreno with her future employer. She graduates this spring in information systems and will head to Washington, D.C., with her fiancé to work for Freddie Mac. The 18-month position rotates through three departments, allowing her to sample the mortgage giant's IT opportunities before settling on a permanent position.

"I have interests, but I don't know exactly what they are. … Students are great assets because they can be hired for cheaper and we can learn a lot on the job," said Moreno, a Kearns High School graduate and co-president of the U.'s Hispanic Business Student Association.

"I'm a little sad about leaving, but I'm excited about going to the East Coast. There will be a lot more diversity," said Moreno, who also interviewed with the CIA and Blue Coat Systems, a Utah firm specializing in Internet security.

Gardner says pockets of opportunity will persist, especially among small, high-growth companies, as well as larger companies struggling to maintain work force continuity in the face of Baby Boomer retirements and global talent raids.

Some of these pockets can be found in Salt Lake and Utah counties. The 2006 start-up Davinci Virtual Offices, which employs 60 people from its Sugar House headquarters, is looking to the U. to hire an MBA to help build and support its client base. Davinci provides office support for small businesses, serving 4,000 clients from 500 office locations.

"When the economy is doing well, there are a lot of small businesses starting up, and when it's contracting, then there are companies that are downgrading and looking at doing things differently. It works for us both ways," says COO Martin Senn.

Another local employer looking to hire is ARUP, the U.'s pathology services enterprise headquartered in Research Park. It is experiencing surprising growth, perhaps because it is the nation's only large lab offering hundreds of specialized tests, officials say.

The 2,400-employee operation currently has 79 openings, many for medical technologists, a $40,000 starting-pay job that requires a special five-year degree.

Staying in school » ARUP's expansion notwithstanding, Gardner is not optimistic about the health sector nationally. "Health sciences is a mixed bag, and it depends on where you are," he says. "Some of those jobs don't pay much and don't require a college degree. There are huge pressures to contain costs. Nursing is not hanging in there because hospitals are not hiring."

For the U.'s 60 forthcoming MBA graduates, the picture may be more daunting. The Michigan State survey reports steeper declines in hiring people with master's degrees in all but the smallest businesses, which report strong demand for MBAs.

U. student Mike Garff is still looking for a job and knows at least three international MBA students who will head home after graduation rather than test the U.S. job market. Garff is not wedded to any particular industry, but he intends to stay in Utah.

"I'm interested in finance, private equity, entrepreneurship," said Garff, who participates in the Pierre Lassonde Entrepreneur Center's program that pairs students with U. researchers seeking to commercialize new technology. "My preference would be with a small start-up. The big national firms have hiring freezes."

James Carroll hopes to find work with a small marketing firm, with fewer than 100 employees, such as Salt Lake City's Richter 7.

"The frustrating thing is I don't know when they'll hire again. It's so hard to make any plans," said Carroll, who would be happy with an unpaid summer internship. "Some of the bigger corporations would like to hire, but it's the not the career track I want to take. No one knows when we will hit bottom. A couple of my friends are happy that they'll be going to law school."

Graduate school applications indeed are increasing nationally, and spiking steeply at Utah's most prestigious programs. Applications are up around 33 percent for the U. master of business administration (MBA) program, and up 21 percent at the law school. Career counselors are also seeing greater student interest in volunteer service, such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America, which provide leadership experience, which future employers might find attractive.

Gardner, of the Michigan institute, cautions against ducking into graduate school unless it's a natural detour on your career path.

"MBAs don't necessarily pay off because employers might not want more book knowledge; they might want other things. It might not translate into higher salaries," Gardner says. He endorses the idea of staying in college an extra year to add a second major in a high-demand field, but cautions that the job market is not expected to improve anytime soon.

"Next year's class will have it even worse," he says.