By Katy Hopkins

Early economic indicators show positive signs for the class of 2011 as its seniors prepare to enter the workforce, according to several studies by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

Job growth for soon-to-be college graduates is stronger this year than last in nearly every industry sector, says Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at NACE. Last week, the Bethlehem, Pa.-based organization released that about 53 percent of employers surveyed intend to hire more college graduates from the class of 2011 than from the previous year, a jump from less than 50 percent who reported they would in a fall survey.

And in February, the organization reported that average starting salary offers to college seniors were up about 3.5 percent from the same time last year -- the first salary offer increase NACE has reported since 2008.

Sectors that typically recruit and hire earlier, including various business and engineering jobs, posted some of the highest salary increases, according to NACE's Winter 2011 Salary Survey. Offers to accounting majors, on average, have increased 2.2 percent to $49,022; electrical engineer offers are up 4.4 percent to $61,690, the study found.

Though the winter study is a small precursor to more comprehensive reports to be released in April and September, NACE's employment information manager, Andrea Koncz, says the early results are already on track. "We weren't actually too surprised that the salaries are starting to increase because everything else is pointing to a positive market for this year's grads," Koncz says.

Nationwide, some colleges and universities have reported early boosts in recruiting and hiring, compared to the past few years. At the University of Michigan, 47 percent more employers came to fall career fairs in 2010 than in 2009, the school reported to U.S. News. The University of Virginia welcomed 14 percent more companies to fall career fairs and has filled to capacity its new, spring semester small-group career counseling sessions for job-hunting seniors.

"We have seen an uptick in our attendance both by students as well as by employers at our fairs this year," says Kendra Nelsen, director for students services at the UVA Office of University Career Services. "It's not huge and dramatic but it's reflective of the little uptick in the job market."

The state of the U.S. workforce modestly improved in February with the addition of 192,000 more jobs, according to a report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The manufacturing, professional and business services, and healthcare fields saw particularly strong gains last month, highlighted by a spike of 34,000 jobs in the healthcare industry. For the 12 months prior, the healthcare field added an average of 22,000 jobs per month, according to the BLS report.

Despite the improving job prospects, the job market remains competitive. Students should be more proactive in their job searches and flexible with short-term career goals, some counselors advise.

Instead of focusing solely on scoring a dream job, UVA's Nelsen prods her students to be open to positions in fertile industries that use similar skill sets as their ideal position might. Even if a student wishes to become an event planner or work in marketing, for instance, it might be best to consider how those job attributes might fit into positions in the healthcare or technology fields, where jobs are relatively ample, in the hopes that skills acquired there can one day be parlayed into their ideal career, she says. "Of course pursue what might be your ideal [job], but also break it apart and get experience wherever you can get experience," Nelsen recommends. "Any experience that has a piece or two of what you're trying to go for eventually can still be valuable."

And though the college graduate job market looks to be on the upswing, analysts and advisers are hesitant to tout the findings as signs of a full recovery. "We're not at the level that we were in 2007," says Koc from NACE. "Because of the recession years, it's a long way back to that level, and we're not quite there yet. It is a move in a positive direction that shows a lot of indications of coming out of the recession. If the trends were to continue...things could be very positive for the next couple of graduating classes."


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Careers - Brighter Job Outlook for Class of 2011

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