The anxiety level on college campuses is slowly dropping from screaming red to dull amber as the job market for college graduates begins to improve.
Locally, students, college officials and employers say they feel slightly more hopeful about grads’ prospects this spring, following three years of virtually no interest.
“Some are getting interviews, at least, instead of no nibbles at all,” said Jill Pletcher, director of career services at Wichita State University.
Last year, more than 40 percent of WSU grads had no job six months after graduating; 55 percent of the students in the survey didn’t distinguish between career-type and non-career type jobs.
It’s become a huge issue as students’ debt loads grow, as tuitions increase and good-paying jobs remain elusive.
Nationally, student debt has now risen above $1 trillion, easily surpassing credit card debt. The average debt load for newly minted graduates was $25,000.
Nationally, employers say they will hire 10.2 percent more new college graduates this year than last, according to the spring survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
That’s an improvement from the 9.5 percent hiring increase employers projected when polled in September. It’s the second year in a row in which employers adjusted their hiring expectations upward.
Although the improvement was tepid, it was spread broadly.
“It looked good across the board,” said Andrea Koncz, of the association. “There weren’t many sectors that were cutting new hires.”
Ashley Abedini of Wichita is a marketing major at WSU who was going through a mock interview last week, getting pointers on how to present herself.
She already had a number of internships with nonprofit groups, which she liked. She’s interested in getting into the business world, but doesn’t have anything lined up. Marketing jobs, she said, tend to get chopped in a down economy and increase only when companies foresee growth.
There’s a good chance she won’t have a job by the time she graduates, she said.
Is she worried?
“Honestly, not really, because I’m confident I’ll get something,” she said.
Where the jobs are
Some areas, such as accounting, held up well during the recession and remain solid, Pletcher said. And various engineering sectors are back in demand.
MKEC Engineering Consultants, a Wichita company that uses a range of engineering disciplines, returned to Wichita State’s job fair this year for the first time in several years.
Kurt Yowell, MKEC’s director of marketing and business development, said the firm is still being very cautious about hiring. It came to promote its internship program and get a look at the engineering students. It’s a positive sign.
“We’re back to a point where we need to make sure that students know who we are,” Yowell said.
Another field seeing an upsurge in demand is geology, as companies have dramatically expanded oil and gas production in the region.
WSU geology professor John Gries said the university’s geology graduates interested in oil and gas exploration are seeing job offers approaching $100,000 if they are willing to leave the state. Students have figured this out and more are going into the program, he said. One of the reasons for such high demand in petroleum geology now is the large gap caused by a 20-year dip in oil and gas drilling that only ended within the last five years. Non-petroleum geologists, who typically do environmental and development work, are getting far smaller offers, he said.
Wichita-based Pulse Systems, which was also at the WSU job fair, is looking for graduates with an interest in working at the intersection of health care and information technology.
The company sells software to manage patient records, a field that is growing as the government encourages the use of electronic health records. Pulse Systems is looking for medical professionals and students conversant with technology who don’t mind training office staffs, and they also are interested in software developers who design and set up the systems.
CEO Basil Hourani said the company could hire 10 to 15 people, some college graduates here or elsewhere in Kansas.
“Health care information technology is a very strong industry,” he said.
But as these niches grow stronger comes weakness in one of the traditionally strong sectors.
Demand for new nurses and some medical technicians is starting to reach saturation around Wichita, said Bernadette Fetterolf, associate of dean of nursing and allied health professions at Newman University.
Nursing and other health profession students can still find work after graduating, she said, but it means a longer search, fewer offers, nights shifts to start and, maybe, beginning part time. It means working their way into the job of their dreams.
Students who choose to pursue a four-year degree instead of a two-year one will make themselves more marketable, she said. Or, they could move to parts of the country where nurses are still in high demand.
The reason for the tightening is supply and demand: The number of colleges offering health career education in Wichita continues to grow at the same time the economic downturn has slowed the growth of health care spending, she said.
“The days when you could pick the jobs and pick the shifts are gone,” Fetterolf said.
That remains true, as well, for the great majority of graduates outside of nursing.
Landing a job, college seniors are finding, requires hard work, energy, luck, connections or some combination of those things.
But prospects are growing brighter, as more companies are calling Pletcher, listing jobs online and coming to career fairs.
That is good news to Chris Gutierrez, who also was participating in mock interviews last week.
A business management major, Gutierrez is still trying to work out what his final career will be. He probably hasn’t done as much job hunting as he would like. He has a line on a position as a bank teller, and likes the sound of that because he enjoys working with people.
He said he’s ready to get out there, despite the fact that the job market still looks discouraging.
“It used to be where you could pick what you wanted to do, but now it’s more, ‘take what you can get,’ ” he said.