College Graduates Find Booming Job Market a Year After Pandemic Lows

Seniors and graduates are again in demand as companies revive recruiting, underscoring the economic premium that comes with a diploma.,

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Trevaughn Wright-Reynolds, a senior at Colby College in Maine, expected a lengthy job search when he returned to campus in August. “I wasn’t sure how much interest I was going to get,” he said. “I didn’t know what to think of the job market.”

It didn’t take him long to find out. By September, he was in the final round of interviews with several suitors, and on Oct. 1, Mr. Wright-Reynolds accepted a position with a proprietary trading firm in Chicago. “I didn’t think I would get an offer this quickly,” he said.

For many college students, the pandemic’s arrival last year did more than disrupt their studies, threaten their health and shut down campus life. It also closed off the usual paths that lead from the classroom to jobs after graduation. On-campus recruiting visits were abandoned, and the coronavirus-induced recession made companies pull back from hiring.

But this year, seniors and recent graduates are in great demand as white-collar employers staff up, with some job-seekers receiving multiple offers. University placement office directors and corporate human resources executives report that hiring is running well above last year’s levels, and in some cases surpasses prepandemic activity in 2019.

“The current market is great for employment,” said Lisa Noble, director of employer partnerships and emerging pathways at Colby. “There was a lot of trepidation for companies in 2020. People wanted to see how things would work out and were stalling.” Since June 1, Ms. Noble has had discussions with 428 employers, compared with 273 in the same period last year.

Much of the recruiting is taking place virtually, as are job fairs and even many internships. But the reliance on virtual platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams for interviews, job offers and eventually welcoming new hires aboard hasn’t dimmed enthusiasm among employers.

“The appetite for college labor is strong right now, whether it’s student positions, or part time, all the way through entry-level jobs,” said Jennifer Neef, director of the Career Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

That appetite at this stage of the pandemic — when overall U.S. employment remains more than five million jobs below the level in early 2020 — underscores the longstanding economic premium for those with a college education over holders of just a high school diploma.

The unemployment rate for all workers with a college degree stood at 2.8 percent in August, compared with 6 percent for high school graduates with no college. Among workers 22 to 27, the jobless rate in June was 6.2 percent for those with at least a bachelor’s degree and 9.6 percent for those without one, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

“We’ve seen a bifurcation in the labor market recovery,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “College graduates were less affected by job losses and have seen a faster rebound while people with high school diplomas or less witnessed a much more serious decline in employment opportunities during the Covid crisis.”

What’s more, the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus has been a one-two punch for those lacking a college degree, hitting the sectors they depend on the most, like restaurants and bars, hotels and retail businesses. By contrast, white-collar employers are thriving.

Office work can also be done remotely, a key advantage over face-to-face jobs dealing with consumers that frequently employ less-educated workers. In many cases, the new hires will rarely set foot at corporate headquarters, with orientation and full-time work mostly taking place online.

And the courtship rituals of recruiters haven’t changed, even if everything is done over the internet.

“It’s back to business as usual,” said Wendy Dziorney, global university hiring leader at HP Inc. The company plans to hire 315 graduates of the class of 2021 in the United States, compared with 126 from the class of 2020 and 210 in the class of 2019.

Fall marks the peak of the recruiting season on campus, with interviews and full-time offers for seniors, while internships beckon for sophomores and juniors.

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Students in search of jobs and internships gathered to listen to recruiters from a consulting firm at Colby College last week.Credit…Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

“October is our busiest month,” said Jennifer Newbill, director of university recruitment at Dell Technologies. Her company has extended full-time offers to more than 1,300 graduates this year, up 60 percent from 2020.

Recruiters of students in the hottest majors — including engineering, computer sciences, accounting and economics — find themselves butting up against one another for the same candidates.

“I’ve been with the firm 26 years and I’ve never seen it this competitive,” said Rod Adams, talent acquisition and onboarding leader at PwC, the accounting and consulting firm. “It’s not just our direct competitors but also tech firms, big industry, banks and investment companies.”

For this year, PwC plans to extend offers for internships and full-time jobs to 12,000 people, up 15 to 20 percent from 2020 and 10 percent above 2019 levels. Like many employers, PwC is approaching students earlier and trying to get top candidates to make a commitment as soon as possible.

The interviewing process used to extend through November, but Mr. Adams hopes to get offers out by the middle of this month and to hear back from candidates by Thanksgiving. “We are moving faster, and the moment students set foot on campus, they start hearing from us,” Mr. Adams said.

PwC is using a hybrid approach to recruiting, with Mr. Adams and his team visiting a few campuses in person while contacting many more virtually. “It allows us to extend our reach,” he said.

In particular, the company has made an effort to pursue students from historically Black colleges and universities, recruiting from 35 of these institutions; five years ago, it recruited from seven.

The rise in campus hiring means more choices for some current students as well as belated help for the pandemic-hit class of 2020, said Annette McLaughlin, director of the Office of Career Services at Fordham University.

“Activity is up significantly from last year and is about 10 percent higher than it was before the pandemic,” she said. “It’s likely that students will get multiple offers and they will have to choose.”

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“The current market is great for employment,” said Lisa Noble, director of employer partnerships and emerging pathways at Colby.Credit…Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

The rebound is also benefiting recent Fordham graduates like Jonah Isaac, who finished school in May 2020, two months after the pandemic struck. Several companies withdrew offers, and Mr. Isaac, a business administration major, spent a year interviewing for spots that never materialized until a Fordham alumnus helped him get a sales development job with Moody’s Analytics in June 2021.

“It was a huge hit for many students, and not getting anything was demoralizing,” said Mr. Isaac, a Chicago native who was a wide receiver on Fordham’s football team. “I’d get to the third or fourth interview, and they’d say, ‘Sorry, we’re going in another direction.'”

Members of the class of 2021 have had an easier time. Brittanie Rice, a Spelman College graduate, landed a job at Dell after working as an intern the summer before. “I felt lucky,” she said. “A lot of my friends had cancellations left and right, but my internship went on.”

Ms. Rice was a computer science major, an especially sought-after concentration for many big employers. But Ms. Newbill, the university recruitment director for Dell, said her company was also hiring students majoring in nontechnical fields — like philosophy and journalism — for sales positions. “Sales is about the personality, not the degree,” she said.

Still, graduates in STEM-related fields are having the most success.

Manuel Perez, 23, is two months into his job as a data analyst at Accenture, which led him to move to Nashville after graduating from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez.

Mr. Perez, an information systems major, said he attended a virtual job fair last October and applied to work at Accenture after meeting with recruiters over Microsoft Teams. After three rounds of interviews, he received a job offer in March and started his position in the summer.

“I had other job offers, but they all wanted me to start immediately, and I wanted to graduate first,” said Mr. Perez, from Camuy, P.R. “I feel the job demand has grown, with more people demanding better pay, in every sector from retail to white-collar jobs.”

Mr. Wright-Reynolds, the Colby senior, is studying statistics with a minor in computer sciences. A native of Medford, Mass., he will start at the trading firm in Chicago in August.

“This was a great opportunity, and I couldn’t go wrong in accepting it,” he said. “I feel like a weight is off my shoulders. I have a lot more time to enjoy senior year.”

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