Despite Down Economy, Employers Woo Graduates

July 29, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The economy is struggling, and the unemployment rate seems to be rising as quickly as the price of gas. Yet, for recent and upcoming college graduates, opportunities for employment may be on the rise, as well.

 "Despite the problems with the general economy, most of the year the college labor market performed really well for college graduates in most areas," said Dr. Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

"Parts of Michigan may have run into trouble because there just weren't enough jobs to meet demand in certain parts of the state." For the nation as a whole, though, the job situation for college grads is promising.

Gardner is the principal investigator behind a report titled Recruiting Trends 2007-2008. The report follows recruiting trends on college campuses throughout the United States. It found that large companies and second-stage growth companies, which are typically smaller companies, have been the most aggressive in college campus recruiting.

Large companies are feeling pressure to fill the holes baby boomers will create as they reach retirement age. To make for a smooth transition, new hires will need at least three to four years of training before being able to integrate and contribute effectively, the report said.

"Employers are trying to get geared up to handle these large numbers of retirements that are coming, and many companies are not prepared for it," said Gardner. "They're scrambling, even though they wouldn't want to hire these people given the general conditions in the economy. They just have no choice but to get some people in that can begin to be ready when boomers do decide to retire."

Gardner suggests in his report that large companies will have to aggressively hire for the next four or five years. After that, if these companies can keep their turnover rate low, the hiring rates will drop to a 2 to 4 percent increase per year.

As for second-growth companies, to attract new graduates, some are offering such incentives as college loan reimbursements.

Starting salaries as a whole have gone up, a necessity for recent college graduates who have to manage a heavy debt load from rising tuition costs.

Gardner warns, however, that if starting salary increases cause a salary hike for established employees, the federal government is likely to step in to slow down inflation.

Gardner said it is still hard to predict what the job market will be like in the near future; recruitment of college grads may slow down, as there may not be enough companies looking to fill baby boomer jobs or enough expansion among second-growth companies to offset the tough labor market.

"We aren't quite sure what's going to happen," said Gardner. "We're kind of caught in limbo so far."

Chris Plouff, director of career services at Grand Valley State University, confirmed the heightened on-campus recruiting.

"The last year to year and a half, we've seen a fairly strong market for college graduates. We're seeing much better opportunities for students than we did in '04 through '06."

Plouff noted that last year GVSU had more employers represented on campus than any previous year.

"We had the largest jobs fairs, the most employers that came and actually did interviews on campus. So we've been having actually pretty good success with that."

Even though recruitment has been high, competition for jobs among graduates is tough. Gardner said internships are one way for students to get on-the-job experience to put themselves ahead of the crowd, and they're also a way for employers to train possible future employees.

Plouff said that students should find ways to gain work experience in their chosen career while still in school.

"Students need to start to develop complementary applied skills early on in their academic process, so it's not just classroom (learning)," said Plouff. "It's service learning, internship programs — those sorts of things we've really been promoting and pushing hard with students."

Lynn Kelly-Albertson, executive director of career and student employment services at Western Michigan University, agrees with Plouff.

"What we find is that it makes a difference for the students in their ability to communicate with confidence," said Kelly-Albertson. "To get in the door and to practice the work that you're learning in the classroom, that gets you to 100 percent. That gives you a chance to see the culture, understand work expectations, understand the givens from the employer's perspective."

Kelly-Albertson said that students who are able to narrow career choices at an earlier age have an advantage in education.

"For one, it's less expensive. If you're able to do some self-assessment early, you'll spend less time, you'll spend less money on your college education," she said, adding that focusing on a career choice early on does pay off in finding a job after graduation.

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