First the joy of finishing college. Then the worry over getting that first job.
“I’m pretty nervous,” said 21-year-old Amanda DeCarlo, a UNC Asheville senior and psychology major who plans to graduate this spring. DeCarlo said she wants to go to graduate school but will have to wait until she can earn the money. She and others like her should take heart, though. Employers are putting the dark days of the Great Recession behind them and are hiring with vigor.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers released projections this month noting employers plan to hire 8.6 percent more graduates from the class of 2014 for their U.S. operations than they did from the class of 2013.
The survey, conducted in February and March, went to 1,015 employers, with 161 responding.
“It is good news, especially when you compare it to what we went through from 2008-’11,” said Mardy Ashe, director of Western Carolina University’s Office of Career Services and Cooperative Education.
Hiring projections started rebounding in 2011 and registered a 19 percent increase in the spring. Those projections dipped in the following two years, and then saw a rebound to 7.8 percent last fall, an uptick continuing into this spring.
Ashe said engineering, computer science, health sciences and nursing graduates are in particularly high demand, while education remains tepid.
More liberal arts-oriented majors, such as English or sociology, will have a tougher time landing a job, but Ashe stressed that employers are looking for graduates in all disciplines, especially students with strong communication and analytical skills.
“I think overall, if a student wants a job and is willing to relocate, he or she can get a job,” Ashe said. “And I don’t mean just any job — a career-type job. Sixty percent of our recruiters who attended our general career fairs this year — 60 percent — said they would talk to any major.”
That’s a strong indicator for Western’s 1,386 graduating seniors, as is the sheer number of employers coming to the job fairs to scout out students.
In the “dismal” days of the Great Recession, Western was “lucky to get 100, 150” on campus, “but just recently we’ve had 300 employers,” Ashe said.
Marlane Mowitz, director of the UNCA Career Center, said the school brought in 81 employers for its spring job fair, up from 71 a year ago. At graduation, they see 39 percent of students with jobs, and of those, about 80 percent have jobs in their field of study.
“I think the job market is better, but I do think students need to sell their skills and show the value they bring to that employer,” Mowitz said. “There are so many people applying for jobs. NACE is saying for every position posted for a bachelor’s degree, there are 28 positions for every application. So it’s still a high ratio, and students need to be able to compete with their resumes and their interviewing skills.”
WCU did not have job placement figures. Ashe said they have “not had a good alumni survey in a good long time.”
Some already have jobs
Brett Gustafson, who will graduate WCU in May with a degree in nursing, is already working at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville. He participated in a cooperative program that allows students to earn an associate’s degree in nursing through A-B Tech, then finish as a registered nurse through Western.
He’s working three-quarter time now but will become full-time after graduating. At 44, Gustafson is not the typical college graduate, having worked for years as a farmer, in construction and as an Internet business owner.
“Having a job is great,” Gustafson said. “Going to school and not having direction or how things are going to pan out is pretty disconcerting for college students these days.”
He mentioned a New Yorker cartoon that depicted a guy holding a Ph.D. and moving back into his mom’s house.
“The certainty of having a job in your chosen career is not guaranteed,” Gustafson said. “The two fields that continue to be promising are health care and computer science, so I’m pretty happy to be involved in something I love to do that happens to be in one of those fields. It’s something I probably should’ve done 20 years ago.”
Another hot field is engineering, Just ask Nathan Lewis, 29, and Dakota Lazenby, 21, both of whom will graduate from UNCA in May. They majored in mechatronics, which combines elements of electrical and mechanical engineering and some robotics, and they both have jobs lined up.
Lewis starts May 12 at Baxter Health Care in Marion as an electrical project engineer. He started working there as an intern in November and signed a letter in January committing to work there.
He started at N.C. State in aerospace engineering and finished at UNCA. Earlier in his 20s, he spent a few years working as a low-voltage electrical technician at $15 an hour.
“It was a good job, but I just couldn’t see it as a career,” Lewis said. “I didn’t want to climb ladders when I was 40, 45, and there wasn’t a whole lot of money there.”
He returned to school when the aftershocks of the Great Recession were still rocking the job market, so Lewis feels his timing worked out well.
“I feel like there are a lot more opportunities than before I took that three-four year break,” he said.
He and his wife, Kristen, are expecting their first child in October, so he’s excited to have a good paying job. His starting salary is “about $60,000, with a bonus.”
Lazenby will start at between $65,000 and $70,000 at TMEIC in Roanoke, Va., a joint venture between the Toshiba and Mitsubishi companies that makes automated port crane machinery and components for metal milling enterprises. He starts work June 16.
TMEIC hired seven of eight students who interviewed, Lazenby said, and has become the largest employer of UNCA’s mechatronics students.
“Anybody who wants a job gets a job with this program,” he said.
WCU senior Thanh Tram, 24, hopes to join the ranks of the employed soon after graduation. A computer information services and management double major, she’s already interviewed with a firm in Washington, D.C. and is waiting to hear from them.
“It’s a pretty tough market, because a lot of people majored in computer science,” said Tram, a Waynesville resident. “It’s a really competitive market. I have applied for a few more jobs, but I haven’t heard anything from them. I’m excited about graduating, but I’m nervous about getting into the workforce.”
Mowitz said UNCA’s placement percentage for mechatronics computer science and accounting is 100 percent.
Keys to landing that job
Ashe and Mowitz, the career center directors, say the willingness to move is a key to gaining employment, as well as internships. They push students to investigate and commit to internships early in their academic careers, because employers want to give potential employees a “test drive,” as Mowitz calls it.
“I would say internship hiring is up across the board,” Ashe said. “They’re hiring more and more students who graduate and are able to do post-graduate internships within six months.”
Graduates also need to show some gumption, Mowitz said, and mine the website LinkedIn for job openings. Also, they need to research potential employers and be knowledgeable about their operations.
“I think the job market is better, but I do think students need to sell their skills and show the value they bring to that employer,” she said. “There are so many people applying for jobs.”
Students shouldn’t sell themselves short, no matter their major, the experts said.
The colleges and employers association notes on its website that the top four attributes they’re looking for in an employee are the ability to work in a team structure, to make decisions and solve problems; to plan, organize, and prioritize work; and to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization.
Ashe said she tries to get students, particularly those who’ve majored in more esoteric subjects, to focus in on what they want to do, what they enjoy doing and then sell themselves to an employer.
“They’ve got to get the mindset they can do it, that they can take the skills they’ve learned in history, sociology or whatever and transfer that into business.”
What local employers are saying
Mission Health, Mission Hospital
Sheila Meadows, vice president of Human Resources for Mission Hospital and system talent management for Mission Health, offered this assessment:
“At Mission I am happy to say that we will be hiring a number of new grads this year. We partner with many schools for both clinical and non-clinical talent. One example is the work we have done with UNCA called Meeting Mission. For the past couple years, we have met with their students to provide them with information about Mission and potential opportunities as they graduate and start their career. We have already confirmed three hires from this year’s graduating class with the potential for several more. We are also offering our 3rd New Graduate RN Cohort with applicants from all over NC and the Southeast. We anticipate hiring as many as 40 new graduate nurses in to the cohort this summer.
“Generally, we have been successful in placing new grads in IT, Revenue Cycle, Marketing, HR and other areas where the students can be successful and for which there is a need. In the clinical areas, we hire new grads into the New Graduate RN Cohort as well as between 7-9 new graduate pharmacists as pharmacy residents. In addition to new graduate hires, we average 500 openings at any given time for the health system. We have positions open in the support and facilities area, nursing support, clerical administrative, profession non-clinical, IT and of course all clinical areas.”
Scott McLean, staffing services manager:
“Job prospects for college grads appear to be improving on the whole — still a competitive job market out there depending on what field the graduate is interested in pursuing.
“Our hiring outlook is about the same as last year in terms of overall numbers of positions available. Nearly one-third of our employees are under 30, which has held pretty steady over previous years. In any given year, we typically hire around 500-plus folks, give or take. We were one of the few companies that continued to hire during the recession, and added 120 new positions when Antler Hill Village opened in 2010 on top of what we normally hire.
“For students, internships, co-ops, and other work during college is the best way to build a pipeline of different opportunities upon graduation. Our hire rate from our internship programs is around 50 percent. We also encourage folks to leverage networking opportunities as word of mouth referrals is still one of the most effective ways to gain employment.”
Buncombe County Public Schools
Spokesman Jason Rhodes:
“We could have around 150-200 positions open this summer. Our turnover this last year was a little higher, but this number is fairly typical.”
Data from The National Association of Colleges and Employers hiring projections survey notes that employers plan to hire 8.6 percent more graduates from the class of 2014 than they did from the class of 2013.