Job market for grads best in five years

05/11/2006
By From the Boston Globe

By Alexander Reid, Globe Staff

The job market for Nebil Awad was so flat when he graduated last year with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell that he decided to go back to the school to get another degree and bide his time.

"I figured I'd go back to school, change my major, and get another degree, then see if things change in a year," Awad said last week. "They did." With a new degree in plastics engineering, Awad has been hired by a firm based in Columbus, Ind., which will pay him close to $50,000.

"My timing was good," said Awad.

Awad is not alone in his good fortune.

Like other college graduates this year, Awad was well positioned to take advantage of one of the best job markets for college graduates in the last five years.

Companies in fields ranging from finance to computers to engineering are wooing graduates with entry-level jobs with starting salaries as high as $40,000 per year. Career counselors on the campuses of colleges and universities in the suburbs north and west of Boston say 2006 is a very good year to be getting that diploma.

The local activity is a snapshot of the national trend. A survey done by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, based in Bethlehem, Pa., indicated a 13.8 percent increase in the number of job offers made to college graduates this spring compared with last year. Leading the field are jobs in accounting, business administration and management, computer and financial services, along with engineering and health.

This is the third consecutive year of job gains for college graduates following two dismal years. This year's increase is the highest since 2001, when employers surveyed said they planned to hire some 23 percent more graduates than in the previous year, according to the association.

"A good number of [graduates] will leave school with jobs in hand," said Patricia Yates, director of career services at the UMass-Lowell. James Greeley, director of career services at Merrimack College, said many students have taken steps to make themselves even more attractive to job recruiters by honing their interviewing skills and revising their resumes in workshops run out of his office.

"It's a job seekers' market right now, but students who are most prepared set themselves up to get the best offers, and there are plenty of them out there," he said.

Diane Hewitt, career director at Middlesex Community College, said grads at the two-year school have been strongly encouraged to gain work experience through internships. "Experience is the greatest leverage a student can have," she said.

Having the right qualifications at the right time also helps.

As his senior year winds down toward graduation, University of New Hampshire student David Gillespie is not sweating out the final weeks of school wondering if there is a good job on the horizon.

An internship with BAE Systems at the company's Nashua office led to a solid job offer from the firm last October for Gillespie, who is set to start his electrical engineering career later this month.

"When I started [in college] the job outlook wasn't very good," said Gillespie of Derry, N.H., in an interview outside his dormitory. "I thought, `If it's bad now, it will probably be really bad when I'm able to graduate.' "

Experts say a number of factors are converging to make this a good job market for graduates. Several industries such as finance, software, and engineering are growing, and companies are expanding to meet the demand.

"Companies are in the expansion mode," said Linnea Walsh of the state's Department of Workforce Development. "They're hiring to fill new slots rather than backfilling vacant positions."

Employers are also hiring to replace workers who have retired. Graduates with accounting degrees are in considerable demand because of federal laws that have set new and tougher accounting standards for corporations.

"It's a pretty diverse marketplace, with careers requiring a high level of specialized and technical skills on the rise," said Thomas R. Horgan, president of the New Hampshire College and University Council. The organization's job fair in March drew 94 businesses, compared with 69 last year.

Even those with liberal arts degrees, not traditionally considered as marketable as the more specialized study fields, are also very much in demand, according to Andrea Koncz, spokeswoman for the association.

"A lot of management training positions and teaching positions are open, for which a person with a liberal arts degree is quite suitable," said Koncz.

The job climate has drawn more recruiters to job fairs and career seminars at colleges throughout the region. Colleges say the interest from companies started in the fall and continued into recent months.

"Employers were swamping us at our job fairs," said Bethany Cooper, director of the Career and Advising Center at the University of New Hampshire.

She noted a job fair for engineering, technology, and business students last fall drew 81 companies, double the number that visited the year before.

"There's a definite trend toward fall recruiting," Cooper said. "A lot of engineering and financial services companies put their offers out there by mid-year."

At UMass-Lowell, Yates said about 60 companies attended several job fairs held throughout the year. "It was a good turnout when you consider that in the last year we had less than half that," she said.

Daniel Webster College in Nashua convened a job fair in late March that drew 20 employers. Career services director Kerry Willard Bray said that was double the number that came in 2005.

"We know from anecdotes that a number of students have done well and were called back for second and third interviews," she said.