Hiring Prospects Look Up for College Graduates—Some of Them, Anyway

November 17, 2010

The job outlook for college students is brightening somewhat, with the hiring of new bachelor's-degree graduates expected to increase by 10 percent this academic year, according to a major annual survey of employers released on Wednesday.

Still, that figure shouldn't spark celebration, as the rise is over last year's hiring, which held steady after drops of 35 to 40 percent the year before, says the survey, which is administered by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

"This step is the first out of a deep hole," Phil Gardner, director of the institute, wrote in the latest report, "Recruiting Trends 2010-2011." Also, growth is far from consistent, he said. "The recovery in the college market does not run deep at this time."

Among the 4,600 employers the institute surveyed this year, about 9 percent were driving up overall hiring. That group comprises mainly large corporations that plan to end hiring freezes and small, fast-growth companies that are creating new positions, the report says. Midsize employers, it says, are still shedding jobs.

Some industries look more promising than others, according to the report. Manufacturers, professional-services companies, large commercial banks, and the federal government plan to hire more new graduates, while smaller banks, state governments, and colleges and universities project drops.

Demand for new graduates also predictably varies by academic field. Employers expect to increase hiring most significantly among students with business- and technology-oriented majors. E-commerce and entrepreneurism look particularly hot this year, as does public relations. Not so for health sciences and social services, where the report shows drops in hiring.

At the same time, the largest proportion of employers to date—36 percent—say they will consider students regardless of major. And companies plan to increase hiring 21 percent among liberal-arts majors, the report says. Fifteen percent of employers are seeking students with a "very broad liberal education," it says. Forty-one percent look for "very specific educational training," and the rest are seeking a combination of the two, according to the report.

Act Fast, Report Urges

Across all fields, this year's projected average starting salary is $36,866, down from $46,500 two years ago (although the more-recent group of employers includes more small companies and nonprofit organizations). The highest estimated starting salary this year, $55,375, is for electrical-engineering majors.

Compared with students from five years ago, employers say that job candidates now prepare better résumés but exhibit poorer professional maturity and demeanor. Employers also worry that students now cannot articulate their skills as well and lack realistic career expectations, according to the report.

Employers plan to recruit at various types of institutions, with projected increases in hiring between 8 and 10 percent at four-year public and private colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions. At for-profit institutions, the report estimates an increase of just 2 percent.

Geographically, the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic regions look best, with hiring increases of 13 percent and 10 percent, respectively, and the Northwest looks worst, with a projected decline of 10 percent.

Over all, employers plan to increase hiring by 3 percent. Upticks among bachelor's-degree graduates (10 percent), M.B.A. graduates (10 percent), and Ph.D. graduates (5 percent) are keeping that figure up, whereas declines among professional-school graduates (13 percent), associate-degree graduates (6 percent), and master's graduates (2 percent) are apparently holding back greater general growth.

The report's advice for job seekers is to act fast. While 16 percent of employers plan to increase the hiring of college students this fall, only 1 percent foresee an increase in the spring. And while many employers report drawing candidates from their internship programs, some employers say they have cut back or eliminated intern positions over concern with federal labor regulations.