WITH final examinations around the corner, Mandy Cheung should be busy studying. Instead, like many of her classmates, the Polytechnic University clothing-studies major is spending hours trying to ensure she has a job after graduating in June. Ms Cheung is understandably worried about her work prospects. Since March, she has mailed to more than 30 potential employers application letters explaining her desire to work as a fashion designer or an art teacher. Not one has replied. 'This year, fresh graduates are more aware of the necessity of an early job-hunt,' she says, while scanning job advertisements at her college's career centre and scribbling down details. The 23-year-old knows that having a university degree does not necessarily ensure employment these days. 'Don't assume you'll find the work you want just because you're highly qualified,' she says. 'It's not for you to choose a job, you have to be chosen.' Her career dreams may have to give way to more practical concerns if she cannot find a job by the end of June, when she is thrust into the real world. The fourth child in a household of seven, she says she is obliged to help out financially when she graduates. 'I'll take any job available if no-one responds to my letters soon,' she says. However, she declares she is not considering 'high risk' jobs amid the present economic slowdown. 'The market can soar and plunge so rapidly, my classmates and I dare not look for work as property agents or investment consultants,' she says. Not only are university students affected by the anaemic economy and the resultant downturn in job opportunities, they are also facing added competition from the larger numbers of Hong Kong graduates - a result of more courses offered by universities - and those returning home armed with foreign degrees. 'There are many overseas graduates returning to Hong Kong,' Ms Cheung says. 'Some have master's degrees and speak and write better English than local graduates. They pose a great challenge for us.' According to Chinese University's office of student affairs, job vacancies at the college's career centre fell 40 per cent from 2,101 during the first three months of 1997 to 1,246 for the same period this year. Worst hit were marketing and sales jobs - which fell from 111 in the first quarter of 1997 to 43 in the corresponding period this year - and jobs in administration and management, down from 280 to 101. Polytechnic and City universities' career centres have also received fewer job offers from employers in marketing, retail, finance and banking, as well as in customer services. In addition, Polytechnic University's student affairs representative John Chan Yiu-hung said there was an overall 10 per cent drop in job placements for the first three months of the year. In March, the Joint Institution Job Information System Office - which offers a central job-placement service for students at the seven government-funded universities - recorded an all-time low. Results of another survey, released by the Democratic Party earlier this week, indicated that seven per cent of students graduating this summer had submitted more than 30 applications each, but that half of them had not secured even one interview. Little wonder then that Ricky Ng, 24, is not optimistic about his chances of finding a job anytime soon. He is equally dispirited about how much he stands to make, should he find employment. The graduate-to-be from City University's Department of Building and Construction says that 70 to 80 per cent of students from the previous year secured employment before their final exams, and were offered salaries of about $13,000. 'This year, the pay packet has been reduced by approximately $2,000 and less than half of my classmates have found a job,' he says. Unlike many of her peers, Amy Chan, 25, will not start her job search until July, after finishing her exams. The business student at Polytechnic University says it is a waste of time to trawl through the classifieds and apply randomly for jobs. 'I would rather set a clear target and choose a few companies that I'm really interested in,' she says. 'With such a sluggish market, I don't think it makes a difference whether you start looking for a job now or in a month.' After completing a business course at Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute five years ago, Ms Chan found work as an administration and audit assistant. But she soon realised her career chances were stymied by the lack of a college degree and, two years later, she entered Polytechnic University. 'I wasn't qualified enough for senior positions and there weren't any real career prospects for the junior positions,' she remembers. Counting on her degree to open doors, she is openly disappointed by the tight job market she now finds. 'When I entered university, some people said the market was beginning to get worse, but with the financial turmoil in Asia now, I realise it's really bad,' she says. Thinking about her future gets her down, she says. 'After all, I've spent three years studying for a degree. It's a big investment in terms of money and time, and now I have to start all over again.' But Ms Chan is adamant about one thing: 'I would not take a job that pays less than $10,000 a month. That was what I was earning five years ago.' Already, says marketing co-ordinator Vancilia Lung Lai-fai of recruitment agency Lindy Williams, job placements in both the banking and finance and the trading and manufacturing sectors have plunged by more than 30 per cent since Hong Kong's economy went into a tailspin in October. The engineering and information technology sector is perhaps the only one that remains relatively unaffected, she says. Roy Owens, managing director of Owens Personnel Consultant Ltd, concurs: 'There has been a downward trend in the recruitment of junior-level [staff], especially in the retail and finance sectors. Six months ago, highly desirable candidates would be placed quite easily, but not now.' Karin Cheung Fong-yee, managing director of Gemini Personnel Limited, one of the largest recruitment firms in Hong Kong, says fresh graduates will have a tougher time finding a job because many employers want people with experience. 'There is a readily available supply of experienced and skilled workers for employers to choose from, and it is not necessary for them to waste time training fresh graduates.' She adds that salaries have also been cut and that people are willing to work for less these days. Like others, Ms Cheung says graduates will have an especially hard time finding jobs in the banking and legal sectors. 'Compared with the same period last year, we've received 25 per cent fewer job placements from these sectors,' she says. Dao Heng Bank Group corporate communications manager Helen Kwan Chuen-yi confirms the troubled economy has affected the company's employment of new graduates. The bank this year suspended its management-trainee programme, which normally absorbed 10 to 20 graduates each year and paid a starting salary of $10,000 to $15,000. In the legal world, firms reliant on the property business have been hit by falling profits and number of transactions. The closure of two law firms in the past two months prompted Law Society president Anthony Chow Wing-kin to remark recently that 'the golden days for the legal profession have ended'. Unemployed City University law graduate Flora Cheng (not her real name) says she is desperate for a job. 'There are fewer job advertisements in the paper, and most want candidates with three to four years' experience,' she says. 'Very few junior positions are available.' In December, after only two months working as a secretary at a law firm that paid $12,000 a month, Ms Cheng was sacked. The company, which relied heavily on conveyancing work, was hard hit by the slump in the property market, she says, adding that 'the company even fired some lawyers'. She now spends her days sending out job applications and preparing for interviews. Should she find employment at a law firm, she knows her pay packet will be slim. Even trainee solicitors are being squeezed at the moment, she says, adding that while starting salaries were once about $15,000 a month, most are now being paid less than half that amount. 'Going to interviews has become such a tedious process,' she says. Echoing the hopes of many in her position, she adds: 'I just want to find a job and settle down.'