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2012's college graduates have more job prospects, recruiters say

The job market for this year's college graduates appears to be on the upswing as economic forecasts show seniors will have a better shot at employment than in past years and more businesses are recruiting at campus job fairs this spring
The job market for this year's college graduates appears to be on the upswing as economic forecasts show seniors will have a better shot at employment than in past years and more businesses are recruiting at campus job fairs this spring.

Those positive signs were present at Cal State Long Beach recently when an event attracted more than 90 potential employers, about 50% more than last year. About 5,000 students, many of whom had swapped their T-shirts and sandals for a more formal look, handed out resumes and hoped to replace anxiety about their post-graduation employment prospects with the growing optimism that recent national reports project.

Shaun Bernard, 23, a marketing and human resources major from Long Beach who said he wants a job as a recruiter, was sharply dressed in a black suit and tie as he chatted with representatives from Northwestern Mutual, Target, Enterprise car rental and others.

"It's definitely a little bit scary out there," he said, recalling how friends from prior graduating classes patched together part-time work or survived as coffee shop baristas. But he added that he's hopeful he'll find his "dream job."

A recent survey by the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers found that businesses expect to hire 9.5% more college graduates this year than last, broadening a recovery since 2009 when such hiring plummeted 22%.

"Hiring projections by industry indicate positive movement nearly across the board," the report said, with the strongest demand for business, engineering and computer science majors.

Similar good news was delivered by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, which expects hiring of new college graduates to rise 7%.

"Employers are now more optimistic about the college labor market than at any time since 2007," its report stated. Salaries of recent college graduates average about $36,000 a year, it showed, varying by industry and major: Electrical engineering majors made $55,000, and psychology majors $35,230.

Despite the economic improvement, Philip Gardner, the institute's director, said there won't be enough jobs, and he urged seniors to start searching aggressively long before graduation. Otherwise, he said, they may wind up serving lattes, part of a generation that's overqualified and underpaid.

"There's a lot of human capital out there with degrees who are floundering," he said.

Compared with graduates in the recession's depth, this year's college seniors appear to be more flexible about possibly moving out of state for jobs, said Robin Lee, associate director of Cal State Long Beach's Career Development Center.

"They've seen older friends flounder," she said. "So these students are more motivated to go out and seek employment."

During the recession's bottom, graduates faced tough competition not only among themselves but with much older people who were laid off and willing to take reduced salaries, said Halvern Logan, a recruiter for Prudential Insurance Co. of America.

But now that is easing, he said, as he handed Cal State Long Beach students brochures about careers in financial planning. He said he expects to hire about 10 new college graduates for jobs in the Los Angeles area this year, twice as many as last year.

"This is the best moment I've seen for seniors for four years," he said. "There is a lot more optimism."

Of course, many college seniors worry about how they will pay large education loans and whether they must move back home to avoid paying rent. (A recent Pew Research Center report showed that nearly 22% of Americans ages 25 to 34 lived with parents or older relatives in 2010, the highest since the 1950s and up from 11% in 1980.) And many will attend graduate school to postpone the job search.

Unemployment among college graduates up to age 24 dropped from 9.8% in February 2011 to 8.1% last month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that is well above the 4.6% in 2008. February's unemployment rate for the same ages with just a high school diploma was 22.5%.

Interest in cracking the job market was evident at UCLA recently, when more than 100 students lined up even before the doors opened for a job fair featuring such nonprofit organizations and government agencies as the U.S. State Department and Healthcorps.

UCLA anthropology major Meron Begashaw, 21, of Van Nuys, said she was looking for a yearlong job or internship in public health and then hoped to apply to graduate school. She said she realizes employment competition is stiff; a friend who graduated last year could land only a low-wage retail sales job, she said.

Still, Begashaw, who faces student loan payments next year, said: "If you look hard enough, you can find something, even if it's not exactly what you want. I feel I will have something to do post-graduation and tailor it to what will be best for me."

The recession has forced graduates to be "much more open to opportunities beyond what their original career trajectory might have been," said Kathy L. Sims, director of UCLA's career center.

Whittier College for the last three years has held a series of evening events called "Backpack to Briefcase," in which alumni discuss how they landed their first jobs and provide career advice to students. A recent session focused on advertising and new media.

Sean Arps, a business and economics major from Tucson, said he was looking for tips on a management or sales job that would pay enough to allow him to stay in Southern California and to start payments on $80,000 in student loans. All that weighs on his mind as graduation approaches, but Arps, 24, said he was feeling relieved about the economy.

"I definitely will be graduating at a better time compared to any time in the past four years or so," he said. "So my prospects are looking up."

He condeded that if no job related to his major materializes by graduation, some of that optimism will fade and he will scramble for even part-time work to pay the bills.

"Hopefully, it doesn't come to that, but if it does, it does," he said.

Some students approach the job market with a sense of "doom" and the specter of loan payments makes some jump too quickly "into any opportunity that comes up rather than taking their time to explore lots of different options," said Linda Ross, Whittier's director of career planning and internships.

Even if the first position is not the ideal job, she said, seniors should make sure it builds skills and connections that eventually help toward their goals.

The recession has affected the class of 2015 as well, she said, adding that her office has received an unusually large increase in requests for career counseling from freshmen.

"During their whole high school time, they saw people losing jobs and heard about the bad economy," she said. "So they are coming to college more career-focused."

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Photo: Andy Garcia of Southern California Edison looks at engineering major Trish Le's resume at a Cal State Long Beach job fair. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

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