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University report: Class of '11 will see slightly better jobs outlook

By Andrew Katz, CNN
  • Overall hiring of new college graduates is expected to rise 3 percent over last year
  • Graduates with bachelor's degrees will fill 72 percent of those opportunities, report says
  • Increase expected to come in a smaller group of businesses, rather than majority
  • Also, prior experience, communications skills, leadership qualities seen as important

Washington (CNN) -- College graduates next May will face better job prospects than students last year as large corporations end hiring freezes, small businesses reshape the economy and employers become more confident they can safely expand, according to a report on national hiring practices by researchers at Michigan State University.

The Recruiting Trends 2010-2011 survey, released November 17, found that overall hiring is expected to grow by 3 percent over last year to provide 122,000 opportunities for graduates across all degree levels.

In fact, nearly 72 percent of those positions could be filled at the bachelor's degree level alone, as the entire college labor market is leveraged by an expected 10 percent increase in the hiring of those degree holders, the survey of 4,600 employers says.

"The market for new college grads took a positive step forward with this increase," said Phil Gardner, director of the university's Collegiate Employment Research Institute.

But before letting the good news sink in, he warned students to remain vigilant, as the "jump is superficial and does not run deep."

The reason: It's not the majority of employers hiring more, but rather a contingent of approximately 350 to 400 larger companies looking to fill positions and smaller, fast-growing businesses creating new ones.

Thirty-two percent of respondents acknowledged definitive plans to hire graduates, representing a mild improvement over 27 percent last year, but 13 percent said they wouldn't.

"There is so much uncertainty pervasive in the economy that employers are cautious to hire," Gardner said. "Much of the hiring activity has already taken place. Students who are just starting their job search are really going to have to work hard."

Wayne Wallace, director of the University of Florida's Career Resource Center, agreed and said it's up to the students to land job offers.

"The job market is buyer-driven these days," he said. "Students need to be well-prepared and sincere in their job search efforts."

The hiring increase for bachelor's degree-level graduates can be attributed to increases from professional and scientific services, manufacturing, the federal government and large commercial banks, the report says.

In contrast, interest in graduates with associate, master's and professional degrees like medical, law or veterinary is expected to fall, with the exception of Ph.D.- and MBA-level students.

The report said that midsize companies with between 500 and 3,999 staffers may continue slashing positions, but larger ones plan to focus their hiring at the bachelor's degree level. Fast-growth companies with between nine and 100 employees could boost their workforce by as much as 19 percent.

Illustrating that gaining professional experience before graduation is the ultimate pipeline toward full-time employment, 60 percent of respondents said they'll hire interns next year.

Wallace said that students typically begin pursuing internships in their second and third years and that they can be particularly useful, "depending upon the employer track record for full-time job conversations and what a graduate expects from the opportunity."

He added that on-campus interviewing appears to have improved over a "low point" last year, but that students should carefully weigh and be realistic about the logistics of any offer: hours, location, salary and overall expectations.

In more good news for students, the report found little difference between the number of graduates hired from four-year public institutions versus their private counterparts. Also, 36 percent of respondents said they won't necessarily limit positions to certain majors -- an all-time-high.

Gardner, the university employment institute director, said some companies are taking a "just give me your best" approach, rather than weeding out qualified applicants who may not have graduated with a certain major.

"Employers need the best talent they can find -- that means skills and abilities that combine to fit the organization," he said. "Major is not an important determinant in this equation."

Graduates with bachelor's degrees in business, computer science and information technology have a better shot at employment than those with degrees in publishing, nursing, social services and health sciences, the report notes.

A study released November 18 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers came to a similar conclusion.

The Job Outlook 2011 survey, an annual forecast of employer recruiting intentions, found that 62 percent of 172 respondents plan to hire graduates with bachelor's degrees in accounting, followed closely by finance, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and business administration and management.

But students who opted for other majors needn't worry: Wallace said employers consider strong communications skills, leadership qualities and teamwork history, too, when deciding whom to hire.