Author: Daniel P. Finney
The employment picture for college graduates this spring will be brighter than it’s been at any other time since the economic downturn began in 2007, economists and Iowa university career counselors say.
The upswing is part of the continued, though sluggish, recovery nationally, but is stronger in Iowa and the Midwest, where employment did not suffer as much as on the coasts and in other markets nationwide.
Employers expect to hire 2.1 percent more new college grads than they did a year ago, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a professional association of college career services personnel and business recruiters.
The negative drumbeat of economic and unemployment news during her college years galvanized Katie Minnick, a Drake University senior, to gain work experience as a student.
“It was no fun to hear, and it was really scary, but it was also a great motivator,” said Minnick, who has majored in magazine journalism and graphic design. “I knew I had to get out there and get experience. I couldn’t sit back and hope my degree did the work for me.”
She completed internships at Meredith Corp. and BitMethod, a Des Moines tech firm specializing in mobile applications. On campus, she worked on student publications and discovered a passion for mobile application design.
Her work has paid off with a position at Cerner Corp. in North Kansas City, Mo., a company that creates information technology solutions for the health care industry.
“I always thought I wanted to do publication design,” Minnick said. “But I wanted a more stable career path. A professor suggested I try designing a magazine for the iPad, and that led to me seeing the job market in a different way.”
Even students who started their job searches a few months ago are landing positions — in sought-after fields. Benett Hansen, a Drake math and computer science major, didn’t start his job search in earnest until February. But with a pair of internships on his resume and a course of study in the hot sector of software development, Hansen had three job offers a month before graduation.
“I was pretty lucky having that much success,” said Hansen, who will work at Allstate Corp. in suburban Chicago as part of a leadership development program. “I applied to a lot of firms, and I heard back from almost all of them in a matter of days.”
Universities report pickup in recruiting of students
The strongest sectors are in science, technology and health care-related work, said Ernie Goss, professor of economics at Creighton University in Omaha. Agriculture and ag-related industries are also solid.
“The jobs picture is fairly straightforward: There are more job opportunities this year for graduates than there were last year, and there were more last year than the year before that,” Goss said. “We’re seeing that in most markets, but especially in Iowa, which did not have as far to go in recovery.”
Iowa’s four largest universities — Drake, Northern Iowa, Iowa and Iowa State — report increased company presence at career fairs, boosted postings on the schools’ job websites and more intense recruiting of students across the board.
“We are seeing interest in our graduates that essentially compares to what it was prior to the recession,” said Matt Nuese, associate director of career services at UNI.
Still, the jobs outlook for new and recent graduates is not universally rosy. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows 11.3 percent of people under 30 with bachelor’s degrees were unemployed as of October 2011, the last period for which complete data are available. More than 72 percent were working, according to the report, and another 9.2 percent were seeking more education.
In contrast, in 1994, 87 percent of bachelor’s degree holders were employed and only 4.4 percent were unemployed, the report said.
2009, 2010 were 'anemic,' but now it's 'much better'
Iowa’s largest schools saw their graduates struggle the most in 2009 and 2010, during the leanest years after the recession. But the last two years have shown steady improvement, career services professionals from the schools say.
The U of I’s College of Arts and College of Business reached a low of 86 percent placement in 2009 but was back up to 90 percent in 2012. This year looks to be even better, said Allan Boettger, U of I director of career services.
“There has been a definite increase in the number of on-campus interviews we’ve had, and we hosted two capacity career fairs this year with waiting lists for both,” he said.
ISU’s worst year was 2010, which still recorded 90.6 percent placement, but that improved to 93.3 percent in 2011. Newer data were not available.
“Anemic is probably a good word for how things were a few years ago,” said Mike Gaul, a career services officer with ISU’s College of Agriculture. “Now, things are much better. If someone comes into my office right now, a week and a half before finals and doesn’t have a job or a strong lead, I’m going to point toward a lack of effort.”
Internships seen as key, can be hard to find
ISU construction engineering graduate-to-be Robbie Greiner also sees a correlation between students’ efforts and their job prospects.
“Most students I know who worked hard and had previous internships had no problem landing a full-time job,” said Gaul, who has landed a full-time job with a Davenport construction company upon graduation. “Students who didn’t focus on internships are going to have a very hard time finding work.”
Zachery Ziffer, a student at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, agrees. But he said finding an internship has been a struggle.
“I have one more semester left until I’m out in the ‘real world,’ ” said Ziffer, who is studying agriculture. “The hard part is that there is a lot of us that need and want internships. I filled out many applications, and all came up dry.”
The optimistic outlook for jobs, however, should be tempered, warns Goss, the Creighton economist.
"The danger we all face, whether in the media or as economists, is looking at one or two years and predicting that it is going to last for years and years,” he said. “The economy is more volatile now, and that is something we’re going to have to live with. One or two things change, and we could be in a downturn again."