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Job-deprived students find ways to cut corners

Students are trimming their already meagre budgets and rethinking career plans after one of the most dismal summers ever drove their jobless rate to a devastating 19.2 per cent.

Coupled with the recession-induced hardships of many parents, many students are skipping their traditional rounds of bar-hopping, concerts and parties in favour of potlucks, cheap events and a new-found sense that there is no free lunch.

Student life now feels "more precarious," says Alexandra Evans, a 20-year-old McGill University student who took a lower-paying camp job this summer, earning far less than her two previous stints at law offices. "I started looking for work last January and realized the jobs I was used to getting just weren't available."

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Ms. Evans is the face of a generation coping with a global recession and unprecedented debt loads. Like thousands of other students across the country, she and her friends scour the city for cheap ways to have fun. That means video rentals, eating at home and McGill football games for $1.

Their lives are mirrored in a poll to be released today that shows nine out of 10 students are worried about the recession, largely because of a lack of jobs. Almost half have cut their spending at least slightly, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey that's the first to measure just how the recession is affecting university students.

"Over the last decade, the job market has been so good for university students that there hasn't been much fear over what happens when they finish university," said Jason Safar, who oversaw the survey and is a partner in PwC's Canadian tax services practice. Now, "nothing is a given any more."

The downturn is flipping future plans upside down. More than half - 52 per cent - say the economy has caused them to rethink their plans. Among those, a fifth are now willing to work in an area that's not directly related to their studies, and one in seven would move to find work, the survey of 673 students found. For Mike Kennedy, a University of Guelph grad who just finished a year in marketing at a community college, it means abandoning job searches for now. After a fruitless hunt in August, the 24-year-old has decided to ride out the recession in Southeast Asia, where he'll travel and volunteer for three months.

After that, he'll look for work across Canada, overseas or "anywhere there's an opportunity, really."

The 19.2-per-cent jobless rate for students this summer was the second-highest rate since comparable data began in 1977, according to Statistics Canada. Many students rely on the Bank of Mom and Dad. About four in 10 say they're financially supported by their parents, who themselves have grappled with weaker investment portfolios and, in some cases, job losses or reduced hours.

The lack of work, combined with rising debts, is causing more student bankruptcies, says Laurie Campbell, executive director of Credit Canada, who estimates about 20 per cent of its clients are now students.

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"Student debt loads have never been higher," she said, citing typical examples of people graduating with $30,000 in student loans on top of $5,000 in credit card debt. "And then, with the job market as poor as it is, it's very unnerving for people."

The result is many students fall into a hole they can't easily climb out of, she said. "We're told by the government to spend to get rid of this recession ... but if you're saddled with debt, you can't do that. You also can't buy a car, invest, get a home, get married - there's a whole delayed reaction to becoming independent."

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About the Author

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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