When Lisa Falen was awarded her degree at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Nursing earlier this month, the only remaining assignment for the class of 2022 graduate was deciding which of the two job offers from suburban Chicago hospitals she will accept.

Paola Perez-Rivera, a UIC computer science major, was offered a position at Northern Trust two weeks before she graduated this month, with the job offer extended via a Zoom meeting.

And Mayra Del Real, a first-generation college student who will graduate with a business degree from DePaul University June 12, has her dream job awaiting her at Ford Motor Co., where she recently completed an internship.

“The job market is hot, and it’s definitely a great time to be graduating,” said Del Real, who like many members of the class of 2022, has a job lined up before she officially graduates next month.

“I had recruiters contacting me left and right, and I’m also bilingual, so I got a lot of job offers,” Del Real added.

After enduring more than two years of COVID-19 pandemic hardships as the virus cast a shadow on every aspect of collegiate life, the clouds appear to be parting this spring, revealing what some labor experts say is the brightest job market for college graduates in recent history.

According to a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a recent job outlook survey found employers reporting they plan to hire almost one-third more new college graduates from the class of 2022 than they hired from the class of 2021.

The report also suggests the hiring surge is not limited to jobs in certain industries, with nearly 56% of respondents indicating they plan to increase their hiring of college students overall.

A robust U.S. economy is fueling the uptick in hiring of recent college grads, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting the American economy added 428,000 jobs in April, with an unemployment rate of 3.6%, unchanged from March.

According to the April report, job growth was “widespread across the economy, led by especially strong results for workers in the Leisure and Hospitality, Manufacturing, and Transportation and Warehousing sectors.”

Additionally, federal officials said “95% of the jobs lost to the pandemic are now recovered, insured unemployment is at a historically low level, and labor market disruptions due to COVID-19 are at all-time lows.”

The rosy economic forecast bodes well for graduates from the class of 2022, whose job search is sure to benefit from “a hot market,” said Robert Bruno, professor and director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“The economy shut down during the pandemic, and then you had a mass reopening all at once, which was unprecedented and at warp speed,” Bruno said, listing some of the factors behind the hiring frenzy.

And unlike years past, when so-called “soft” liberal arts degrees in the humanities were considered by some to be impractical, Bruno said this latest crop of college graduates is being wooed by employers actively recruiting workers from a wide range of majors and backgrounds.

“What they are looking for in a preferred candidate is someone with really good social emotional skills, someone who is a problem solver and works well in groups, and they’re looking for people who have the capacity to think creatively,” Bruno said.

“When there’s a hard time staffing and you hear about difficulties in the labor force, employers are not saying ‘this kid can’t add,’ and it isn’t even work ethics,” Bruno said. “They’re just not getting people who can create the right environment, they can’t problem solve and they don’t work well in teams.”

When it comes to finding that first job out of college, members of the class of 2022 have different priorities than their parents, Bruno said, and similar to the workforce in some European countries, they “clearly recognize the need for balance between their work life and their life outside of work.”

“I think one of the things COVID taught these students is that life is short,” Bruno said.

Perez-Rivera, 21, the UIC graduate who begins her job with the technology team at Northern Trust in July, said she is less worried about earning a big paycheck and fast-tracking her career, and more interested in having a job she enjoys and that can support pursuits outside the workplace.

“I was having a conversation with a friend, and we were saying how we’ve never really worried about salaries and climbing the corporate ladder,” she said. “We just want to have good jobs so we’re able to enjoy life. To take trips to Europe and see the world with our friends, and knowing we have a job to support that.”

A robust job market and vibrant economy resulted in “booming” student job fairs this spring at UIC, with employers searching for candidates for a wide range of positions, including those in sales, finance, accounting, data and business analysis, and much more, said Jean Riordan, executive director of career services at UIC.

“I have the sense that right now, there are more jobs out there than interested students to fill them across the board,” Riordan said.

“What we’re seeing is the majority of positions are in business, engineering and IT, and the next most in demand are in the nonprofit, social services sector, and employers are not just actively posting jobs, they are actively recruiting students,” she said.

Another trend Riordan noted is students taking their time to “make the right decision about which job offer to take, instead of just jumping into anything.”

“These students have been through a pandemic, and they’re also looking at their parents’ experiences, and realize, nothing is a given, and nothing is constant,” Riordan said.

“They also really want a meaningful way to contribute to their communities, and so they are making conscious choices, and not panicking and grabbing the first job they’re offered,” she added.

Falen, the UIC nursing graduate, said she was successful at her first career in restaurant management, but decided to return to school and major in nursing “to make a difference in people’s lives.”

She signed up for career coaching during her junior year at UIC, participating in mock interviews and seeking feedback on how she could polish her interviewing skills. But with two suburban hospitals reaching out to her with offers, a job search was not necessary.

“My understanding is there’s always been a nursing shortage, and then COVID increased the need, because so many health care workers had traumatic experiences, they decided to retire early, and there’s a lot of burnout,” said Falen, 35.

“The majority of the nursing students who graduated yesterday already had jobs lined up, and they also had the option to start where they wanted,” Falen said earlier this month.

For Falen, that means working in an ER department as soon as she takes her board certification exams. “It’s definitely an extra high-stress and fast-paced environment, but I love the diversity and knowing I’ll be helping families during some of the worst parts of their lives,” she said.

Despite the booming job market, most college graduates will still need to conduct a job search. When preparing for job interviews, soon-to-be graduates should ensure they have plenty of practice answering questions, and are ready to present a professional resume, cover letter and portfolio if needed, said Brenda Williams, managing director of DePaul University’s career center.

“Even in the midst of a hot job market, you need to put your best foot forward,” Williams said.

While the DePaul graduation is still a month away, employers often begin recruiting students for positions a year or more before they earn their degrees, Williams said.

“Students are receiving multiple job offers, which is definitely different from last spring,” she said.

Not all employers require a four-year degree to be considered for professional roles. Jim Coleman, senior managing director at Accenture, said the company is aiming to fill 20% of its entry-level roles from its apprenticeship program for its fiscal year 2022, ending Aug. 31. That’s an increase from 15% in the prior fiscal year.

Coleman said prior to the company’s launch of the apprenticeship program in 2016, “you had to have a four-year degree to be considered at most companies and large organizations.”

“There’s a lot of talent out there, and those candidates were not getting the same opportunities because they couldn’t afford college,” Coleman said.

The apprenticeship program — which is paid and includes full benefits — prepares participants for roles in areas including application development, cybersecurity, data engineering, and cloud and platform engineering, Coleman said. The jobs are nearly half of Accenture’s entry-level positions in the U.S. that do not require a four-year college degree.

Del Real’s path to her new position in the automotive financing industry with Ford Motor Credit, the company’s financial services subsidiary, was not the traditional academic route taken by some college students.

After graduating from high school, Del Real worked full time as a cashier at a Ford dealership in Arlington Heights, where she “fell in love with the auto industry, and knew I wanted to someday shift to the corporate side.”

“It was definitely the combination of loving cars, and all of the new designs that came out every year, and I loved working with the customers, so to me, everything about the auto industry was great,” said Del Real, 27, of Buffalo Grove.

Recognizing she would need a college degree to realize her career goals at Ford, Del Real enrolled at Harper College in Palatine, where she earned an associate degree, and then transferred to DePaul in 2020 “just as the pandemic hit.” Taking classes remotely allowed her flexibility to earn her degree while taking care of her young son.

Determined to work for Ford, Del Real applied for and was hired for an internship, and the company offered her a full-time position she is slated to begin in July.

“My internship was so much fun and the people were great, and then the company offered me a good job, so for me, it’s been a really great time,” Del Real said.

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com



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