Michaela Jones graduated from Loyola University Maryland on Saturday. Even before she picked up her degree, the 22-year-old business administration major already had a job.
Jones becomes a production associate for the Baltimore event production firm Feats Inc. next month — and says fellow seniors are finding opportunities, too. For her class, she said, the college-to-work transition seems less daunting than when her brother graduated from Loyola five years ago.
"I didn't expect to be able to get out of college and start a couple of weeks later," said Jones, who is from the Philadelphia area. "We're in a different job market now. ... People are getting jobs ... and people are doing the things they want to be doing."
After years of high unemployment and depressed wages, analysts say, the job market for recent college grads is looking up. Members of the Class of 2017 have better job prospects than students who graduated in the aftermath of the recession, when students faced a weak labor market and had to compete with more experienced workers for limited jobs.
"We are looking at a rosier picture today for college grads," said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute. "Things have definitely been improving. ... As we add more jobs, jobs are being offered to people across the spectrum."
Employers surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers expect to hire 5 percent more new college graduates from the Class of 2017 than they hired last year.
The unemployment ratefor young college graduates — those age 21 through 24 — has declined to 5.6 percent, within one percentage point of its prerecession level, the Economic Policy Institute reported this month, and wages are recovering.
The jobless rate remains much higher than it was for young graduates in the strong economy of 2000, the institute said. But the recovery, although slow, has been steady.
"We're getting pretty close to where we were before the recession, and with each consecutive year we're getting farther from the recession, this looks more and more like the prerecession economy," Gould said.
Clay Zou, who graduates Wednesday from the Johns Hopkins University with a degree in public health studies and economics, had his pick of five job offers. He chose to work as an associate consultant for Bain & Co. The firm had topped his wish list of workplaces.
While he benefited from a stronger economy, Zou, 21, also worked methodically over four years in college to land his ideal job.
As a freshman, he attended programs through the university's career center to identify possible fields and, with the help of a shadowing program, chose consulting over finance. Last spring, he prepared for specialized interviews at consulting firms and networked to secure job interviews.
Zou, who is from East Brunswick, N.J., estimates he spent about 40 percent of the fall semester traveling for interviews with about 20 firms. By the end of October, Bain offered him a job in Chicago.
"There's overall optimism about the job market," he said. Plus, he added, "What we benefit from, coming from a school like Hopkins, is a great brand name that's attractive to employers, and students who are driven and motivated. That helps regardless of the [economic] situation."
Nearly three-quarters of employers surveyed by HarrisPoll said they plan to hire recent college graduates this year, the greatest percentage since the start of the recession in 2007, and up from two-thirds last year. Half said they plan to offer more pay than last year. Nearly 40 percent plan to pay a starting salary of $50,000 or more.
Career center directors at area colleges including the University of Maryland, College Park, Morgan State University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Loyola and Hopkins said they see the positive hiring trends reflected on their campuses as employers ratchet up participation in job fairs and other networking events.
"We have had continued employer interest across industries," said Ann M. Garner, executive director of Hopkins' JHU Career Center. "We're seeing employers going beyond the traditional on-campus recruitment and career fair approach, coming to campus and meeting with student groups, wanting to see their projects and research. It's a more active level of engagement."
Professional services, consulting, engineering and information technology firms all have been actively recruiting, Garner said, but campus job fairs also have drawn a more diverse group of employers, including nonprofits, government agencies and media companies.
Seana T. Coulter, director of the Center for Career Development at Morgan State, said a steady stream of employers have posted jobs and internships and attended events and career fairs.
"We always have a waiting list" of employers seeking engineers, teachers, social workers, computer scientists, accountants and others, she said. "There's more opportunity out there, but you still have to market yourself."
Nearly 650 employers recruited at UMBC this year, Career Center director Christine Routzahn said. They included the National Security Agency, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, T. Rowe Price, Morgan Stanley and Lockheed Martin. Northrop Grumman hired 100 UMBC students this year for permanent jobs or summer internships.
The number of job interviews on Loyola's campus jumped 23 percent this spring to nearly 400, said Jim Dickinson, assistant vice president for career services. While some employers seek out specific majors or skills, he said, others place more importance on students' ability to solve problems, especially in client-facing or sales jobs.
At the University of Maryland, last year, about 92 percent of bachelor's degree graduates either found jobs or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation.
"We see the job market as positive for the class of 2017," said Allynn Powell, associate director of professional preparation at the University Career Center & The President's Promise. "Here on campus we continue to see employers" — including government agencies that are once again recruiting — "engaging in a strong way with college graduates."
For Anne Arundel County public schools, confronted with a statewide teacher shortage, recruiting at colleges is a key part of hiring efforts.
The school system has recruited at 26 colleges this year, including at 12 in Maryland, and offered 34 open contracts so far from those visits, human resources director Jessica S. Cuches said. The district is trying to hire as many as 700 new teachers for the 2017-18 school year, and fill particularly difficult-to-staff areas such as special education and foreign languages.
Other employers that have turned to Baltimore-area college campuses for new hires include PayPal and Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
Enterprise has looked to Morgan State, Coppin State University, Towson University, Loyola and Stevenson University to fill positions in its management training and management intern programs. PayPal, which recruits at Hopkins, University of Maryland, College Park and UMBC, recently hired eight graduates to work as software developers in its Timonium headquarters for its global credit business.
"We get a lot of really great technology and engineering talent from those particular schools," said Heather Rosenberg, senior director of people for the Americas and Global Credit at PayPal. "The talent is so great here in this area. That's one of the reasons we continue to stay in the Baltimore area."
Not every graduate is planning to head straight to work.
Brittney Gordon, 21, a Morgan State biology major who graduated Saturday, plans to pursue her dream of becoming a pediatrician.
Gordon, who grew up in Jamaica, starts medical school this fall at George Washington University. While many classmates — especially those with engineering or architecture degrees — are graduating with job offers, she said, many others are pursuing advanced degrees.
"There's a feeling that a bachelor's degree is becoming equivalent to a high school diploma," she said. "A lot of times it's not enough anymore."
Through both weak and strong hiring cycles, Routzahn says, much of the advice to students remains the same. She tells students to not only maintain strong academics but also find ways to show initiative and leadership.
"People want to hire someone who is well rounded," she said.
Alyssa Lavalette, a 22-year-old marketing major at Loyola, said internships helped her determine what field to pursue. After interning last summer at Merck, Lavalette returned to school in the fall and began applying for a permanent position at the pharmaceutical giant and to similar firms.
"My goal was to have a job before Christmas," Lavalette said. "I was very focused. I wanted to have everything set up before Christmas so I could enjoy my last semester and focus on my studies."
It worked out as planned. In October, Merck offered Lavalette a job in her home state of New Jersey. After graduating Saturday, she plans to join the company's emerging talent rotation program in information technology in July.
"It was a great relief," Lavalette said. "There are a lot of opportunities out there. It's just getting your foot in the door."