What a difference a year makes. In May 2008, top graduates of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration fielded salary offers of at least $70,000 a year and a bonus of the same amount for their first post-grad jobs. Not to be outdone, many Columbia University or Wharton grads armed with MBAs and commercial real estate finance skills were snapped up by Wall Street firms for six-figure salaries.

But that was before the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers last September at the height of the subprime mortgage crisis and before commercial real estate fundamentals across the board began to show significant deterioration. Today, job opportunities on Wall Street and Main Street for the Class of 2009 have greatly diminished.

“Last year at this time many of our graduates had received more than one offer,” recalls Steve Carvell, associate dean at Cornell's hotel school in Ithaca, N.Y. “We had about 40 of our students going into Wall Street-type jobs in real estate. It's not happening anymore.”

According to the 2009 hiring trends survey of commercial real estate industry executives by Chicago-based FPL Advisory Group LLC, 49% of companies expect their workforce to decrease, with the largest declines on the West Coast and in the Northeast.

Executives expect base salaries to remain flat, and more than half of respondents say bonuses are decreasing. In March, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported results of a new survey that showed firms plan to hire 22% fewer graduates this spring.

The national unemployment rate reached 8.5% in March, and since the recession began in December 2007, 5.1 million jobs have been lost, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Graduates faced with evaporating career opportunities have become more resourceful, shifting their priorities to consider jobs in real estate fields that are not their first choice.

Instead of trying in vain to land a job with a development or real estate investing firm, an increasing number of grads are considering a career in the burgeoning field of asset management. Among the few bright spots for job seekers is the increased demand for grads with the financial acumen to assist borrowers with loan workouts or in raising capital.

“It's a tough market, tougher than any I can remember,” says Lynne Sagalyn, director of the Paul Milstein Center for Real Estate at Columbia University in New York. A couple of years ago, about 38% of her graduates found jobs in investment banking. Now it's down to nearly 20%. As government programs for troubled assets and public-private investment vehicles play larger roles in the coming months, there will be a need for new hires to run the numbers and conduct due diligence, notes Sagalyn, who has been observing the market for more than 17 years.

Grads can also find opportunities by contacting building owners, says professor Joseph Gyourko, director of the Sam Zell and Robert Lurie Real Estate Center at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia. “You still have to own [buildings], you still have to finance them, you still have to run them. That's where you're going to have to go and get jobs.”

The University of Wisconsin's Graaskamp Center for Real Estate makes it easy to screen potential new hires by offering video interviewing when recruiters are unable to travel to the campus, says Kris Hammargren, senior associate director of the center. The program, which focuses on economics and finance, also taps the university's connections to the Urban Land Institute as it tries to help grads, says Hammargren.

Earlier grads lose jobs

Mounting job losses nationally have hit close to home for many schools offering advanced degrees in commercial real estate. Hundreds of alumni of prestigious real estate programs, including some who graduated in 2008, have lost their jobs, not only on Wall Street but at development and real estate finance firms throughout the country.

Some unemployed professionals have sought help from their alma maters by contacting professors who were already trying to assist the current crop of grads in gaining a toehold in the industry.

So sensitive is the ongoing layoff issue, in fact, that it has affected traditional internships for talented students. “This is the first summer we're going to find that paid summer internships are hard to find,” says Terry Farris, director of the master of real estate development program at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. Companies that have laid off workers are reluctant to bring in a new employee to work for a reduced rate, says Farris.

Some employers believe that hiring an intern at a time when their company is financially struggling and downsizing sends the wrong message. Paying an intern is not the problem. It's the image of hiring someone to work for low wages at a time when some employees feel that their jobs may be in jeopardy, Farris explains.

Developing like The Donald

Despite the severe recession, students pursuing advanced degrees are barreling ahead to complete projects as part of their coursework. At Clemson, where a two-year program to earn a master's degree in real estate development costs $25,000 per year, the 19-member Class of 2009 undertook a final practicum involving two projects: a 60-acre, $300 million mixed-use redevelopment in Charlotte, N.C., and a residential project in Columbia, S.C.

The final projects include conducting a feasibility analysis, site plan and market study. The results are presented to a jury to review, in a process similar to presenting a proposal to potential investors. “It's as close to a real deal as you can get. These are top brokers in town, as well as developers,” Farris says.

The scenario is reminiscent of developer Donald Trump's popular television program, The Apprentice, in which candidates undertake projects and compete for a chance to work with the developer.

Clemson grads who get the chance to develop shopping centers in the South or Midwest normally earn $75,000 to $100,000 to start, plus a $10,000 or $20,000 bonus. That's if they can find a development job in a recessionary environment marked by a dearth of new projects. Salaries have dropped slightly from last year, with $60,000 a reasonable starting figure at a smaller firm, Farris says.

A few candidates still attract multiple, six-figure job offers, Farris adds. Matt Summers, who managed a 4.0 grade point average while pursuing a master's degree in real estate development, received two offers and accepted a job at Spectrum Capital LLC in Jackson, Miss. Summers has managed developments valued at up to $120 million, juggling the real-life projects with his studies.

For new grads hungering for six-figure paychecks, Sagalyn of Columbia University has some advice. “This is not the time to focus on big salaries.” she says. It's a time to soak up skills. “You're going to have to work really hard, probably for less. What matters is your earning potential over your lifetime, and that's going to be affected by what you learn in the next two or three years.”

Denise Kalette is senior associate editor.

Awaiting An Offer

World-traveling Wharton MBA candidate has managed investor reports, tax audits.

Jennifer Ambrosecchia hopes to have a long and rewarding career in commercial real estate, perhaps in asset management or investment. But the job offer she seeks has eluded her, as it has so many others in the Class of 2009 in this year of recession and credit constraints.

With the national unemployment rate at 8.5% and many companies downsizing, it's not easy to land a job in commercial real estate, Ambrosecchia admits, but she's determined. “It is certainly a very challenging recruiting environment,” she says. “I am very committed to the industry. I'm trying to assess how I can position myself for when the economy recovers.”

Ambrosecchia, who is graduating from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia with a master of business administration (MBA) degree, has majors in both real estate and finance. She has broadened her search to include specialties beyond asset management and investment, and is approaching both private and government employers.

Few MBA candidates in earlier classes targeted the government, but with the increased federal role in helping companies work out their financial problems that strategy could pay off, she says. She has also contacted Wharton alumni to reach potential employers.

The Wharton grad is armed with an impressive resume. In 2007, she made the director's list with grades in the top 10% of her class.

Kindling a real estate passion

Her interest in real estate finance deepened while she worked from 2005 to 2007 as a senior analyst at Richman Asset Management in Greenwich, Conn., part of the Richman Group, which specializes in investment banking and multifamily management. She was given important responsibilities, including managing and editing annual and quarterly investor reports for a commercial real estate portfolio of 900 affordable rental properties.

Ambrosecchia also coordinated an annual review of 700 limited partnership tax returns and audited financial statements. “It was an incredibly valuable experience, a true learning experience,” she says. “That's what sparked my passion for real estate. I consider many of the executives at Richman to be like mentors to me.”

Last summer, she interned at General Electric Real Estate in Norwalk, Conn., providing analytical support for retail investments of up to $100 million.

She also estimated the net asset value of a publicly traded real estate investment trust with a $1.5 billion market cap for a potential $100 million preferred equity investment. Ambrosecchia built cash-flow models to estimate the return on potential investments.

“There was a very big difference between GE and my prior work experience,” she says. GE is a large conglomerate while Richman is far smaller, and privately held. “I was very pleased with my experience with GE, but at this point I feel like evaluating some different opportunities.” In 2002, she interned at Merrill Lynch in White Plains, N.Y., providing office support and assisting financial advisers.

Shopping lessons

During a trip to India over winter break, Ambrosecchia enjoyed evaluating retail development, and found the malls of Mumbai, with upscale retailers like Louis Vuitton, far more sophisticated than the open-air markets she had anticipated. “Some of the malls are comparable to what you would see in the U.S. or most of the Western world.”

The multifamily housing market also intrigued her. “In Mumbai, you can drive from the slums to very high-priced condos.” Last year, on a trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil she saw affordable housing built by the local government. Officials were trying to convince local residents to leave their run-down housing for better units.

Her attraction to international development is understandable. Ambrosecchia was born in New York, but spent her childhood and young adulthood in Italy where her father was born. She moved to Westchester after high school.

Although she misses Italy's quaint medieval towns, Ambrosecchia likes living in the U.S. She knows the New York City area best, but for the right job, the Wharton grad is ready to travel. “I'm very open-minded.”

Green Beret

After earning a Purple Heart in Afghanistan, Clemson grad conquers development.

At 28, Matt Summers already has managed mixed-use and retail developments valued at up to $120 million, while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average in the master of real estate development program at Clemson University in South Carolina. In his spare time, he buys and manages rental property.

But that's not all. Summers is a decorated veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces his actions earned him a Purple Heart, three Bronze Stars and a number of other medals, including an Airborne Badge for his achievements as a paratrooper. He brings a similar resolve and intensity to his real estate career.

Summers, who mastered courses in development and investment as well as site planning, urban design, market analysis and finance, is among a few members of Clemson's real estate development Class of 2009 to garner multiple job offers.

After graduation this month, he will pack up and head to Jackson, Miss., to work for developer and property manager Spectrum Capital LLC. “They made me a great offer, and my wife and I are only too happy to move down to Mississippi and become part of their team,” he says.

A $120 million opportunity

Since last August Summers has traveled between the university in South Carolina and his job in Mississippi, where he manages a neighborhood retail center. He also made at least three trips to Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he has been appointed manager of Spectrum's Dynasty Park, a $120 million mixed-use project that will incorporate 200 to 250 upscale hotel rooms, about 65 luxury condos, up to 25,000 sq. ft. of retail space, and an estimated 30,000 sq. ft. of office space.

“We have assembled the land and we are in the design development stage,” says Summers. After trimming some costs he is “making sure that we have the perfect plan,” he adds. Depending on how well the condo presales go, groundbreaking could take place as early as September, with completion about 26 months later.

In Jackson, he will oversee a $10 million component of another mixed-use project that incorporates a $20 million baseball stadium and a Sam's Club, among other elements. The total project cost is expected to exceed $100 million.

Summers is pleased with the progress he has made in his career. “I've been involved with a series of projects, but right now I'm just starting to take leadership roles, as opposed to acting as a support element.”

And he's enjoying the development process. “Mixed-use is a lot of fun. It has its own set of unique problems and circumstances, and I think that if I can become proficient in developing mixed-use, I will become proficient at any other kind of development just by default. It's a door-opening opportunity to go into other branches of development.”

But he doesn't have his heart set on a particular sector, such as office or industrial. “I'm an opportunist, I guess,” he says. “I don't want to close any doors. I'll go wherever there's opportunity.”

He and his wife have sold two condos and other investment property in Fayetteville, N.C. to prepare for the transition to Mississippi.

Scars of combat

Summers lists his wartime achievements on his resume, although he speaks about the experience with reserve. On October 12, 2006, he was standing next to a truck that exploded, trapping two fellow soldiers inside. His back and arms bear the scars after he and two teammates jumped into the burning truck to rescue the soldiers.

“That's how we got burned,” says Summers. “We went into the truck and pulled the other guys out before it exploded again. The army saw fit to give us a medal.”

In Afghanistan, he also designed combat missions, consulted for the State Department and trained more than 200 Afghan National Army soldiers, leading them on combat missions in Operation Enduring Freedom. More recently, he put his strategic skills to work in developing a project management template for his new employer.

Summers worries about his peers as they endure lengthy job hunts, and is thankful that his career is underway. “I'm fortunate enough that my plans are cast in concrete for the foreseeable future.”