Kai Holderby's timing couldn't be any better.
When he graduates in May after five years at the University of Missouri, he'll step right into his dream job with an international accounting firm.
Turns out this spring has brought the best employment opportunities in years for those coming out of college. With the economy slowly picking up, more companies are showing up on campuses with more jobs to dangle in front of soon-to-graduate seniors.
Hundreds of employers responding to a spring job outlook update conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE, said they expected to hire 10.2 percent more new college graduates in 2012 than they did a year ago.
Recruitment efforts "are comparable to five years ago," said Matt Reiske, director of career services for the University of Missouri's business school, which has seen a 9 percent increase in on-campus recruitment.
When the economy tanked, "we saw a dip," Reiske said, in something of an understatement. NACE reports new college graduate hiring plunged nearly 22 percent in 2009.
"But then as the economy has strengthened, the outlook for our graduates appears more promising," Reiske said. "We are seeing more jobs posted (online) and more companies on campus doing interviews."
Companies are doing more than just showing up at campus career fairs; they're actually handing out jobs, according to career offices at Missouri and Kansas universities.
"In past years a good number of them came to the career fairs just to keep a presence, for name recognition among the students. But they weren't hiring," Reiske said.
University of Missouri-Kansas City career specialists said that although they don't have exact numbers, they suspect the number of employers recruiting students on campus is double what it was last year.
Based on responses from 106 employers who answered the NACE outlook survey, job postings on college career services' electronic bulletin boards averaged 116 postings per employer, up from 105 last year and 45 in 2010.
"I'm not sure if it is because of our more proactive outreach to employers, or if it's the recovering economy, or a combination," said Kerri Day Keller, director of career and employment services at Kansas State University.
College career specialists said the atmosphere at job fairs has changed.
"There is definitely more of an air of optimism felt; people are more cheerful, students and employers," said Liz Caldwell, employment services manager at the University of Kansas Career Center.
Last year, 88 employers came to KU's campus in the spring; this year, 116 showed up.
"I had one employer tell me that last year he had two job openings. This year he has 10 or 12," Caldwell said.
Holderby, an accounting student, has noticed a lot more companies setting up tables on campus, handing out information and talking to students.
He attended about 15 meetings on campus with potential employers and landed an internship last summer with Deloitte Tax LLP in St. Louis, his hometown. This spring the company offered him a full-time position.
The increase in hiring of new college graduates over the last year is largely thanks to big companies aggressively filling positions that they've held open for several years and fast-growing small firms creating jobs, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. The research institute, which gathered its data in a 2010-2011 survey, said it expected hiring of new college graduates to climb by at least 7 percent this year.
"The signs suggest that parts of the economy are beginning to rebound," the institute report stated.
Teresa Alewel, the director of career services at the University of Central Missouri, also has seen some rebound.
"It is still not what it was five years ago, when it was very good," she said. "We're seeing a nice steady increase."
Rockhurst University has seen a 16 percent increase in recruitment over 2011, when 874 students were hired, said Mike Theobald, director of career services. This year, 1,016 at Rockhurst have landed jobs so far.
The companies hiring include public accounting firms, financial service providers and nonprofit organizations.
KU and MU career services said their lists of recruiters on their campuses have ranged from nonprofits such as the American Red Cross to Aflac Insurance, Dish Network, Garmin, Cerner and the Federal Reserve Bank.
Caldwell sees "a surge this year of people looking for math majors, biology and chemistry majors, and analysts."
Kelsey Evans developed an interest in Cerner after Rockhurst's career services department set up a special visit for a group of students.
Evans, who has been studying international business and Spanish, was "a little hopeful but nervous" when she contacted the recruiter. She went through two phone interviews and a more detailed one at the corporation before getting tapped for the trainee program.
The 22-year-old has been employed at a work-study job on campus, was the president of the social activities board and was a student blogger for the university.
She starts her real job with Cerner in the summer. She and other new hires will undergo three months of training before they are assigned to a department.
"I thought it (getting a job) would be a difficult process because there were many people and there were not many jobs going round. I was a little nervous. Hopeful, but nervous," she said.
Evans didn't want to say how much she'll be making at her new job, but it will be much more than the federal minimum wage she has been getting for the six hours a week she worked on the university program.
"For my first job, I think it's pretty reasonable," Evans said. "Anybody that's paying right now is reasonable."
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