LOWELL - A job fair in the UMass Lowell recreation center brimmed with hopeful graduating seniors on a recent afternoon. But more surprising, the cavernous gymnasium also brimmed with employers - so many that event organizers had to turn some companies away for lack of space.
For soon-to-be graduates like Michelle Azzi, saddled with student loan debt and looking for a job, that’s very good news.
“I’m optimistic this year,’’ said Azzi, 22, of Methuen. “I’m seeing more jobs posted online and getting more interest from companies. Last year there wasn’t much out there.’’
As the economy continues to slowly improve, seniors and graduate students may have more reasons to be optimistic about job prospects this year. The National Association of Colleges and Employers recently surveyed 900 of its members and found that employers expect to hire 10 percent more entry level workers this spring.
A survey of 4,000 employers by the Michigan State University showed similar results, with companies expecting to increase hiring by 7 percent this year. Researchers noted in their report that employer optimism was approaching levels not seen since before the recession hit at the end of 2007.
“The [job] market is much better,’’ said Phil Gardner, director of Michigan State’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute, which conducted the survey. “The growth is what you would call solid.’’
Solid growth is good news for an age group that has been battered by high rates of joblessness while burdened with hefty tuition debt. While the nation’s overall unemployment rate remains high at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for workers between the ages of 20 and 24 is nearly double that, at 15.5 percent.
Only 46 out of every 100 college graduates landed a job in their chosen field in 2010, the most recent data available, according to research from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.
Despite the optimism about this year’s job market, Northeastern economist Andrew Sum cautioned that there was no overall increase in hiring for college graduates last year despite similar rosy predictions.
Still, he said, “I think this year will be better. But a lot will still depend on what you majored in.’’
The Michigan State study found that the new hiring trends favored accounting, computer science, and engineering majors. Employers also reported a desire to hire in communications and marketing fields, generally because of an explosion in Internet commerce. Similarly, employers predicted hiring gains in advertising, public relations and human resources hiring.
Demand for students with math and science skills was on full display at a recent job fair at Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne, where school officials said they have more employers with openings to fill than graduates, a large percentage with degrees in marine engineering. About 60 percent of last year’s graduating class had jobs at graduation, a number that is expected to rise this year as an expanding global economy increases jobs in the shipping and oil industries.
“Science, technology, engineering and math are the future,’’ Mass. Maritime Admiral Richard G. Gurnon said. “I’m not being disrespectful to English and philosophy majors, but all you’ve got to do is drive around Taunton and Fall River to see that we don’t make clothes and shoes anymore, we make brains. And when you drive along Route 128’s high-tech corridor, you see those brains in action.’’
Graduates who have a specialty in health-care related fields will also have an easier time landing a job, said Meredith A. Moore, a recruiter from Hallmark Health of Melrose, which staffs Lawrence Memorial Hospital and Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. Demand for medical services among the aging baby boomer population is helping fuel job growth in that sector.
Moore was looking for graduates at the recent job fair in Lowell; her company has more than 200 open positions, including jobs for ultrasound technicians as well as physical and occupational therapists. There are even a few marketing jobs that have opened up, she said.
Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, a life insurance company based in Milwaukee, was also at the Lowell job fair, as it tries to fill 5,000 new positions the company recently created. Chief recruiter Lauren Miller said she was seeking recent graduates for financial representative, planner, and compliance jobs.
“We’re looking for business majors,’’ Miller said. “But what we’re really looking for is the right kind of person, the right fit.’’
Employers often want students with work experience, said Maria K. Stein, director of career services at Northeastern University, which offers a popular 18-month co-operative program where students get credit and a paycheck for on-the-job experience. Stein said about half of this year’s graduating class of 2,500 will have a job at graduation, she said, the best rate of employment in several years.
Still, graduates face a buyer’s market as they seek employment. Michael Gaskins, associate director of career services at UMass Boston, said recent graduates are competing against other students who graduated in recent years as well as more experienced workers who lost their jobs during the recession and took lower-paying entry level jobs to make ends meet.
Gaskins said he spends a lot of time coaching discouraged college students and combating a widespread feeling among them that there are no jobs out there. There are jobs, he said, for motivated and persistent job seekers.
“It’s still going to be challenging and competitive’’ for most recent graduates, Gaskins said. “But you have to set yourself up to succeed.’’
At the UMass Lowell job fair, the recruiter for EMC Corp., the Hopkinton data storage giant, was besieged with student applicants. Students stood in a long line waiting to speak with her, even after she announced that she was mainly looking for three-month interns and six-month co-ops.
Business major Timothy Goncalves said he would take an internship at the company with the hope that it would lead to a permanent position.
“There’s opportunities, but it’s very difficult to get into a job,’’ Goncalves said. “I’m hopeful but it’s still tough.’’