College students are long on enthusiasm and short on experience. But that mixture may actually be an asset in a tight job market.

For years, college students headed back to class knew they could count on a steady supply of retail, restaurant or office support jobs to help cover expenses. However, the lingering economic downturn has made that formula a lot less reliable.

"The recession has had a big impact on the types of jobs available for college students," said Denise Felder, editor of MN Careers, an employment resource produced by the Minnesota State College and University System in St. Paul. "Once upon a time, students could go to the mall to find a job. Now, those positions are either not available or are being taken by more seasoned workers."

Felder's view is supported by a July 2010 Minnesota Economic Outlook produced by Wells Fargo Securities. From 2006 to 2009, the report notes that the state's unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds rose from 14.7 to 21.1 percent. During that same period, unemployment for the 20- to 24-year-old age group more than doubled, from 5.7 percent in 2006 to 12.6 percent last year. Meanwhile, labor force participation by Minnesota residents age 65 and over rose from 14.2 percent in 2006 to 18.2 percent last year, as many older residents scrambled to cover depleted investment returns.

How can college students and younger workers navigate the "new normal" job environment? Felder offers the following tips:

Think differently. When traditional jobs are harder to find, younger workers need to tap their main assets: energy and creativity. That opens to door to entrepreneurship. "There's no age limit on starting your own business, especially if it's a part-time venture that isn't paying a mortgage," said Felder.

Follow passions. A student-run business can not only be tailored to fit class schedules, but also create solid post-graduation résumé material. For example, students with strong online creative skills can market themselves as blog editors, Webmasters or "Twitter assistants" for business professionals. "The bottom line is finding that passion and matching it up with a market for that service," said Felder.

Network effectively. If students don't want to run a business, Felder said they need to redouble their efforts to build and expand personal networks. For example, this may include using online and face-to-face tools to let people in their immediate circle know what kind of job they're interested in. Additionally, students should get involved with campus organizations or professional groups that fit with their career interests as a means to build contacts. While the latter may not always lead to paying work, the contacts and visibility in that network often provide a bridge to employment after graduation.