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Job market improves for recent college graduates

Those entering the workforce are finding more opportunities — if they look hard enough

After applying for entry-level jobs at 87 companies, Molly Hagerty finally got an offer for a three-month internship at a San Francisco public relations firm that will pay her just a few dollars an hour above minimum wage. But the University of Massachusetts senior, who graduates in Amherst in less than two weeks, considers herself fortunate, hopeful the internship will lead to bigger and better things.

“Right now, it’s the best offer out there,” said Hagerty, a 22-year-old communications major. “I’m still getting automatic rejection responses from the other companies that I applied to. They’re still collecting in the inbox.”

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Hagerty’s search for post-graduation employment in many ways captures the state of the job market for the class on 2013, one that remains tough and competitive, but is showing small signs of improvement after several dismal years. While many recent college grads, particularly those holding liberal arts degrees, face difficult job searches, there are indeed positions to be found — even if it requires sending out applications to 87 different companies.

University officials say they’re seeing increases in job placements and more employers showing up at campus job fairs to recruit students. At UMass Amherst, for example, the university’s main job fair, “Career Blast,” attracted 141 employers this year, up about 40 percent from last year’s 98.

Labor Department data show similar trends. The unemployment rate for recent college graduates peaked in 2009, the worst of the last recession, when 17.6 percent — about 1 in 6 — were unemployed a few months after getting their degrees. That jobless rate fell to 13.5 percent for those who received a bachelor’s degree in 2011, and some economists estimate it fell to about 12 percent for the class of 2012.

That’s still higher than the prerecession unemployment rate of 9 percent for those who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2007. But the numbers — which reflect a similar downward trend in the nation’s overall jobless rate, from a peak of 10 percent in October 2009 to 7.6 percent last month — indicate a steadily improving job market for recently minted college graduates.

“In general, young college grads really got roughed up during the recession, and they’re not back to where they were before the downturn,” said Paul Harrington, director of Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy in Philadelphia. “Yet the outlook is slowly getting better, yes.”

But not all college degrees are created equal. And today, more than ever, the degree dictates the opportunities, according to both labor economists and university career experts.

For example, college graduates with engineering and computer science degrees are not having much trouble landing jobs within their chosen fields. Many even get job offers months before they graduate.

Last fall, Ariel Hamlin, who is majoring in civil engineering and computer science at Tufts University, attended a campus job fair in Medford and came away with a number of solid leads.

The 21-year-old Hamlin, who graduates next month, recently accepted a job offer from the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington to work as computer-security specialist. She starts in July.

“I was never really nervous about finding a job,” said Hamlin. “I was confident that my majors were in high demand and that Tufts people would help. Computer science is just booming these days.”

Indeed, data from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies show that young adults with degrees in engineering, math, and computer science are far more likely to get professional jobs that require college degrees than those with other majors.

About 80 percent of such “technical” degree holders have college-level professional jobs, compared to just 59 percent of those with degrees in the humanities, according to the Northeastern center.

To put in another way, more than 40 percent of recent humanities graduates are working as bartenders, retail sales associates, and at other jobs that don’t require college degrees — double the share of those with technical majors.

And not only are degree holders with very specific types of skills more likely to find jobs, they’re also more likely to land jobs that pay more higher paying jobs as well.

Maria Stein, director of career services at Northeastern University, said a typical computer science grad in the Boston or Silicon Valley areas can command about $80,000 — or more — for a job, while electrical and mechanical engineering grads are getting offers starting in the $55,000 to $60,000 range.

But those with classic liberal arts degrees, such as history, English, and political science, often don’t make even half of what computer-science majors command right out of college — assuming they can even find a professional position within their chosen fields, according to labor economists.

One nontechnical major that’s recently seen signs of improvement in terms of employment prospects is business administration, as long as the degree includes very specific concentrations, such as accounting, finance, and digital marketing, according to labor market specialists.

Chris Wolfel, 23, graduates from Northeastern this week with a business administration degree with concentrations in entrepreneurship and marketing. Through Northeastern’s cooperative education program, which places students in semester-long jobs in their fields, Wolfel worked at number of Boston-area tech firms over the past four years, gaining valuable experience and contacts along the way.

Recently, Wolfel applied for and got a sales job at Yesware Inc., a venture-backed Boston firm that develops e-mail tools for sales people.

“Part of me was nervous about where I would land,” said Wolfel, a native of Plainville, Conn. “But the start-up scene in Boston is very strong and there’s more opportunities now with young tech companies.”

Michelle Bata, associate dean at Clark University, agreed that the job market for the class of 2013 is somewhat improved from the last few graduating classes. But it’s far from robust, added Bata, who also directs the Worcester school’s Liberal Education and Effective Practice Center, an initiative to help students prepare for the working world.

“It’s certainly not like it was before the recession, when many students could go out and get competing job offers and use them as leverage to get higher pay,” said Bata. “Some majors, yes, are doing better than others. But it’s going to take time to get back to where we were.”

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