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College grads find economy improving, but slowly

Newly minted bachelor's degrees in hand, college graduates are finding that there are more jobs to be had, particularly in engineering and technology.

Editor's note: This is the first story in an ongoing series profiling college graduates throughout the United States as they hunt for technology jobs. Check out CNET's special report, "Wanted: A job in tech," for a story tomorrow on MBAs making their way in tech world.

TROY, N.Y.--The rain is coming down heavily this spring morning at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of the nation's top technical universities. But as seniors prepare to enter the work world, there's far less gloom here than in recent years.

"A lot of seniors I've talked with have something lined up," said William Jones, a mechanical-engineering major, who will graduate May 28. Jones, too, has something lined up: a position with the Engineering Leadership Program at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems in Pittsfield, Mass. It's a three-year opportunity during which Jones will rotate through three or four different technical posts.

If you need more signs that the economy is turning, albeit slowly, Jones and his fellow engineering majors offer some hope. Without question, many are still looking. But unlike the last few years, when the global recession kept many employers away from college campuses, jobs, particularly technical ones, are there to be had.

Just look at the data. A recent survey of 4,600 employers by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University found that hiring of new graduates with bachelor's degrees will climb 10 percent this year, the first increase in two years. Given that 1.7 million students will receive bachelor's degrees this year, according to the Education Department, a double-digit boost is significant.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute senior William Jones, who graduates May 28 and, like many of his classmates, already has a job lined up. Jay Greene/CNET

Job prospects are most rosy for graduates with degrees in perennially hot fields such as engineering and computer science. "Technical skills will always get picked up first," said Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute.

An April study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which tracks recruitment data, found that 63 percent of employers who plan to offer jobs to college graduates this year will hire engineering majors. That's followed by 61 percent of those employers looking for business majors, and 48 percent looking for accounting majors. Only 13 percent of those hiring college graduates this year are interested in social science majors, and just 8 percent want humanities majors.

That's one reason why the seniors at RPI seem a bit more upbeat than in recent years. Set in the verdant hills on the eastern banks of the Hudson River just north of Albany, N.Y., 187-year-old RPI is the nation's oldest technological university. Last year, nearly two-thirds of its 1,265 undergraduate degrees were awarded to students in its engineering school.

"A lot of students are more optimistic about getting jobs," said Thomas Tarantelli, director of RPI's career development center. "Last year, we didn't see that."

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence too. For example, RPI's spring career fair last year had just 115 companies recruiting students. This year, 155 companies came by. "As the crusty old guy I am, I don't listen too much to economists or politicians," Tarantelli said. "I look for a real-world indication that things are turning around. And I've seen it."

Another bonus for many RPI students: graduates with engineering and computer science degrees can expect to pull down higher salaries than their classmates with social science degrees. Collegiate Employment Research Institute found in its spring survey that the average starting annual salaries for electrical-engineering majors will be $55,375. For mechanical-engineering majors, the average annual pay will be $53,964. And for a computer programming major, the average yearly salary will be $49,229. By comparison, liberal arts majors will pull down an average salary of $35,445, and psychology majors will make an average $34,264 in annual pay.

The bulk of this year's college graduate hiring is coming from large companies that are aggressively filling positions that have been open for several years, and fast-growing smaller firms that are creating positions to keep pace. The Collegiate Employment Research Institute found that companies with more than 4,000 employees plan to increase hiring of graduates with bachelors degrees by 11 percent this year, an average of 103 new hires per company.

The other segment showing significant hiring growth is made up of companies with 9 to 100 employees, a category that includes start-ups. Those firms plan to increase hiring of grads with bachelor's degrees by 15 percent, or about 4 to 5 workers per company.

Average starting salaries for college graduates in 11 of 20 fields evaluated by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

Jobs aren't falling into graduates' laps, though. In Jones' case, he interned for General Dynamics over two summers and one winter. Jones worked his contacts there over time and got a job offer late last year. It didn't take him too long to accept. "I knew people there," Jones said. "I could hit the ground running."

For him, it's a dream job. Both his grandfathers were in the military, and the technology behind the tools of war--firearms, tanks, naval ships, and jet planes--has fascinated him since he was young. For a while, he considered applying to the U.S. Naval Academy. "I figured the next best way to follow my passion for the technology but not actually join the service was to become an engineer and work for a defense contractor," Jones said.

Though he's spent the past two summers in Pittsfield, a quiet town in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, Jones acknowledges a bit of trepidation about returning full-time. "The town is not the most happening place for a just-graduated college student," Jones said. But there are a few bars and a movie theater that he expects to frequent. And as an avid cyclist, he plans to hit some of the trails in the region. "I wouldn't say that I am nervous about the move, but I know that it is going to take a lot of getting used to," Jones said.

It's still a whole lot better that having to look for work. And government data shows that even though the hiring of college graduates is picking up, it's doing so slowly. The jobless rate for college graduates under the age of 25 was still 8.5 percent in March, slightly lower than the overall jobless rate of 8.8 percent, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in March 2010, the jobless rate for college graduates under 25 was 6.9 percent, and was as low as 3.1 percent in March 2007, before the global recession hit.

There's little doubt, though, that college graduates fare better than those without degrees. The jobless rate for those under 25 with only a high school degree hit 21 percent in March, up from 14.5 percent in March 2010.

"As the crusty old guy I am, I don't listen too much to economists or politicians. I look for a real-world indication that things are turning around. And I've seen it."
--Thomas Tarantelli, director of career development center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

That said, plenty of newly minted or soon-to-be minted college grads are still searching for work. Caroline Albrecht will graduate from RPI with a bachelor's degree in electronic arts, a degree that mixes traditional art studies with digital media. She'd love to land a job creating 3D animation for a company such as Pixar. Even though she'll graduate with honors, Albrecht hasn't found a job yet. And that's despite sending out dozens of applications. "I've sent out a ton," Albrecht says.

As she scours the Web for jobs, she sees openings at companies that appeal to her, but not jobs for which she's qualified. "On the engineering side of the creative industry, there are a lot of jobs there," Albrecht said. But she's wanted to work as an animator since she was 12, mostly because one of her mother's friends noticed her drawing skills back then and encouraged her to consider animation.

Albrecht is often inspired by music, and by events that seem out of the ordinary. "Creating an aesthetic that can convey the message I want it to when I developed the original idea is what drives me the most to finish," Albrecht said. That passion also keeps her motivated to find work in animation, as challenging as it is these days. But she acknowledges that "it's a lot harder than I thought it would be."

That's why she's also come up with a Plan B. If Albrecht can't find her own dream job, she intends to move back in with her parents in Northern New Jersey. That way, Albrecht can commute into New York City to look for jobs and find freelance work. "I've definitely gotten anxious and nervous," Albrecht said.