Job outlook brightens for new college graduates

Heather Prosser will have more than a college degree when she accepts her diploma from Stevenson University on Friday. By then, Prosser also will have the first week of her first job under her belt.

A computer information systems major, Prosser had two job offers before she graduated — one from Lockheed Martin and another from Johns Hopkins HealthCare.

She went with Lockheed Martin, where she began work on Monday as a software engineer. Landing a job in the post-recession — but still rocky — economy was a big relief. "It's definitely a weight lifted off," Prosser said. "Job searching can be stressful."

For recent college graduates, the prospects of landing a job are improving, reflecting cautious optimism among employers after several dismal years, employment experts say.

Two recent national surveys show that companies expect to hire more recent college graduates this year than last. Local college career centers report greater interest from employers in hiring recent grads. And graduates with in-demand majors say they are getting multiple job offers.

Employers plan to hire 19 percent more new college graduates this year than in 2010, according to companies polled in a survey released last month by NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Those results mark the first double-digit increase in spring hiring projections since 2007, the association said.

"Employers are looking to bring in entry-level workers to build their work force," especially in areas of information technology, customer service, sales, finance, accounting and marketing, said Brent Rasmussen, president of CareerBuilder North America. "Companies … need fresh, educated talent to fill those roles."

An annual college job forecast by CareerBuilder, which runs an online job-placement site, shows a gradual year-over-year increase in projected hiring. The share of employers planning to take on recent college graduates grew to 46 percent this year, up from 44 percent last year and 43 percent in 2009.

Meanwhile, the number of job applications sent to employers surveyed jumped 45 percent over last spring, but the total number of openings tripled, according to NACE. Employers in most industries represented in the association's poll said they expected double-digit increases in hiring, but decreases were projected in the government, retail and professional services categories.

Systems Alliance Inc., a Hunt Valley-based consulting firm that designs and builds websites, is keen to hire recent college graduates. The 55-employee company has increased hiring to keep up with growing business from its health care and higher education clients and over the past six months has brought eight new staff members on board, including recent college graduates.

"Obviously, hiring a more junior resource tends to be somewhat more economical than a more experienced person commanding a higher salary," said Mark Dabrowski, vice president of the company's Web effectiveness practice.

Beyond the economic benefits of hiring young workers, though, the company appreciates entry-level employees because they don't have preconceived notions or entrenched bad habits, he said.

"We can train them in our processes quickly and effectively," Dabrowski said. "We've definitely had more hits than misses."

Instead of candidates with lengthy resumes, Systems Alliance seeks people who are motivated, intelligent and willing to learn, he continued.

Davis Miller had a business management degree from Clemson University and little technical background when he was hired by Systems Alliance in 2009, the year he graduated. Now a business development executive for the company, he credits his summer internships selling educational products door-to-door with helping him land the job.

"I think my boss liked that I could demonstrate I knew how to work hard," he said. "I knew how to be independent and motivate myself."

Directors of local college career centers say they have seen an increase this year in the number of companies visiting campus to recruit job candidates, as well as more calls from employers seeking candidates. A record 130 employers attended a career fair hosted by Loyola University Maryland this spring, up from 100 last year, said Jen Rowley, director of the university's career center.

The Johns Hopkins University, too, reports more interest from companies. "We're seeing increased employer participation in several of our career services, including the number of interviews on campus," said Mark Presnell, director of Hopkins' career center. "I think it certainly is a better market than [in] previous years for recent college grads."

Though the job prospects for new graduates have improved, the market has not rebounded to prerecession levels, when CareerBuilder surveys typically showed that about 70 percent of employers planned to hire grads — a far cry from this year's modest 46 percent, said Allison Nawoj, a CareerBuilder spokeswoman.

"I would say my experience with students is it's still a pretty tight labor market," said Art Taguding, executive director of career services at Stevenson University. "We're seeing it opening up a little bit, but there are still [fewer] opportunities than there were in the past and it's still very competitive."

Graduates' majors can have a big impact on their chances of finding a job.

Michael Wilson, a senior theater major at Coppin State University who returned to school after serving in the military, said he switched from a nursing major because he wanted to pursue his dream of being a director. Now about to graduate, he's uncertain about his future, as are many of his theater-major friends.

"We're all soul-searching," he said. "It's not like [graduating] from high school, where you can go live with your mom and dad. It's time to get a career going and start your life."

Stevenson's Taguding advises students in the job market to focus less on broad economic trends and more on their own skills and attitude.

"They have to have strong persistence and a positive mental attitude to get them through this process," he said.

Seeking work can be nerve-racking regardless of the state of the economy — especially for the uninitiated.

Eleanora Abram, a senior accounting major at Loyola University, said she felt nervous about finding a job, even though her professors expressed confidence about career prospects for accounting majors.

"That put me at ease, but at the same time I had to consider everyone saying how bad the economy was and friends not being able to get jobs," Abram said.

Abram, who enrolled in a career center program that stressed interviewing skills and resume writing and offered on-campus interviews, said she was pleasantly surprised when half of the dozen companies she applied to called her for interviews. Of those, three made offers last fall, including two after she had already accepted a job.

"I was shocked," said Abram, who will graduate on May 21 and start working in September as an audit associate for a downtown accounting firm. "I went through the whole process and was grateful to have one [job offer]. That was my goal. I'm more excited about graduation because I have something to show for all the hard work I've been doing the last four years."

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