College Grads Face Better Market, Stiff Competition

With the nation’s employers finally beginning to ramp up hiring, this year’s crop of nearly 1.7 million college graduates should enjoy the most welcoming entry-level job market in the last three years.  However, finding a position will by no means be easy and many spring graduates may have to settle for less money or for a job outside of their preferred career path, according to a new outlook from global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

“Entry-level hiring has not returned to pre-recession levels, but this year’s graduates should find markedly improved job-search conditions.  Colleges and universities around the country are reporting increased on-campus recruiting and surveys of employers indicate more graduate hiring, as companies rebuild their bench-strength after massive layoffs during the downturn,” saidJohn A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

After months of tepid job creation, it appears that employers are finally beginning to accelerate hiring.  The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in 2010, private-sector payrolls averaged net gains of 98,000 new jobs per month.  In the first three months of 2011, average monthly job gains have jumped to 188,000.  In February and March alone, private-sector employers added 470,000 new jobs, the largest two-month employment gain since 2006.

The surge in hiring could not have come at a better time for college seniors, many of whom are just a few weeks away from graduation.  A survey of 170 employers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers ( found that they plan to increase hiring of new graduates across all degrees and majors by 21 percent.

In a broader survey of 4,600 employers, the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at MichiganStateUniversity( found that hiring for graduates with bachelor’s degrees will increase about 10 percent.  That represents the first increase in hiring for these graduates in two years, according to the Research Institute’s report.

Meanwhile, several campuses across the country are reporting increased recruiting visits by employers.  The Texas Christian University newspaper, The Daily Skiff, reported that the number of on-campus interviews at the school was up 10 percent from a year ago and that the number of employers participating in the school’s spring career expo increased from 63 in 2010 to 80 this year.  TheUniversity ofMichigan reports a 47-percent increase in on-campus recruiting since fall.  Employer participation in the annual “Just in Time” job fair at theUniversity of California -Berkeley recovered to the point that the event returned to a two-day schedule after three years of being compressed into one day.

“There definitely is pent up demand for entry-level workers.  During the recession, many companies made significant cuts to their workforce, retaining only the most talented and most experienced workers.  As companies begin to rebound, they will focus on finding and cultivating the next crop of talent,” said Challenger.

The demand for entry-level workers can be seen in Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that 20- to 24-year-olds saw the largest employment increase over the first three months of 2011.  The number of people in this age group working grew by 308,000 or 2.4 percent.  Employment among 25- to 34-year-olds and 35- to 44-year-olds each grew by less than one percent, and employment among 45- to 54-year-olds fell by 1.1 percent.

“In this hiring environment, recent graduates have two distinct advantages.  First, they presumably have the basic skills necessary to succeed in the workplace, but, as far as the employer is concerned, they are blank slates.  This is a good thing for an employer that wants the ability to mold its next generation of workers, as opposed to re-shaping someone who came from another employer with ingrained work habits, skills, and knowledge that may not fit with the company’s culture or approach to business,” said Challenger.

“Secondly, recent college graduates are extremely flexible in terms of where they work and when they work.  They are not tied down by an underwater mortgage or a family, so they can go wherever the company needs them to go.  And, because many don’t have the family commitments that many 30-something and older workers do, they are more willing to work longer and/or non-traditional hours,” he noted.

Even with the entry-level market improving, Challenger warns that finding a position will remain challenging and fiercely competitive.

“Graduates are not only competing for jobs with their fellow classmates, but they are going head-to-head with people who graduated in 2010, 2009 and even 2008.  Some of these job seekers might already have some on-the-job experience, while others have been waiting tables or working in other non-career areas until the job market improved.  Competition will also come from people who are currently employed, who see a healthier job market as an opportunity to seek greener pastures,” said Challenger.

“The competitive nature of the job market requires an aggressive approach to the job search.  Soon-to-be graduates cannot expect to hand out a few resumes at job fairs and reply to some online postings and simply wait for the offers to come pouring in.  Make no mistake, job fairs and online job boards have their place in the job search, but to be successful a well-rounded strategy is required.

“One of the most important elements of a successful job search, for both entry-level job seekers and their more-experienced counterparts, is networking and meeting face-to-face with people who can help advance the job search.  College graduates who believe they are too young to have an effective network are simply wrong.  Parents, professors, former internship supervisors and even college and former high school classmates can be valuable sources when it comes to building and expanding one’s network,” said Challenger.

“Finally, graduates should not confine their searches to a specific industry or occupation.  The job market is not robust enough to provide the ideal job situation for every individual.  It seldom is.  So, someone may come out of college with the plan to find a marketing position with a consumer products company.  There’s nothing wrong with having a specific goal like that, but don’t make the mistake of adhering to it so closely that you overlook opportunities in marketing for a chemical company or health care provider, for example,” he said.

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