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Students graduating from college in spring 2011 faced an odd sort of serendipity. Of course, there have been better years to enter the job market. But at the start of the year, as many companies determined their entry-level hiring budgets, corporate earnings were strong and the economy showed signs of recovery.
“Hiring picked up in spring. It was pretty fortuitous,” says Robert Conners, who received a bachelor’s degree in finance and business economics from Indiana University Kelley School of Business in May.
Conners signed an employment contract in the fall of his senior year with a firm that wound up liquidating months later, putting him in a rough spot his final semester. But things turned out fine. He graduated with three other job offers and now works in the Oakland (Calif.) office of Compass Lexecon, a consulting firm.
“I thought I would have to scramble because the leftover jobs in spring are usually slim pickings,” Conners says. But as it turned out, he says, “the timing was good.”
As overall job creation continues to sputter, Conners and other class of 2011 undergraduates are benefiting from a window of economic growth that led to the first hiring increase of newly minted bachelor’s degree holders since the class of 2008 entered the workforce. Business students reaped much of the benefit, and accounting jobs made a notable comeback after taking a rare plunge in 2010.
Hiring of new college graduates increased an estimated 10 percent this year after remaining unchanged in 2010, says Philip Gardner, director of research at Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute (CERI). Large companies with 500 or more employees accounted for the bulk of new hires, according to a report published in July by the Society for Human Resource Management, which supports CERI’s estimates.
Hiring of MBAs grew again this year, “but not as much as the bachelor’s [degree] market because there was so much pent-up demand,” Gardner says.
The class of 2011′s success may come at the expense of those who graduated in 2010 and 2009. From Gardner’s research, companies have preferred to make entry-level hires straight from campus instead of the pool of graduates still searching for jobs. The unemployment rate of bachelor’s graduates aged 16 to 24 rose to 13.2 percent in July, up from 11.6 percent a year earlier and 7.6 percent in 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate is almost always highest in June, July, and August as new graduates enter the workforce.
Though the threat of a double-dip recession looms, hiring trends at undergraduate business schools are expected to continue, creating opportunities for 2012 graduates—if they know how to prepare and where to look.
Dustin Earnest received an undergraduate finance degree from the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business in spring 2010. He played varsity football for the school and redshirted his freshman year, intending to put the fifth year of his athletic scholarship toward a graduate degree. Earnest considered an MBA and had an initial interest in engineering programs, but when finance jobs disintegrated in 2008, older classmates urged him to take as many accounting classes as possible. He expects to get a master’s degree in accounting in December.
“I figured it couldn’t hurt to have an extra token on my résumé,” he says, noting that if finance jobs didn’t return he’d have a backup plan. He interned with Goldman Sachs (GS) in Dallas this summer and hopes a full-time offer will follow.
Earnest’s mentality is a legacy of the financial crisis, which made accounting a safer bet than finance for many finance students. Many more now see accounting experience as a way to stand out to financial-services firms, and accounting careers as a potential way to break into finance later if jobs are scarce. At UT-Austin, finance students are voting with their feet: The number of finance majors at McCombs who pursued master’s degrees in accounting nearly tripled from fall 2009 to fall 2010, according to Jim Franklin, director of the graduate accounting program. The figure jumped again based on enrollment for this fall, even as undergraduate finance recruiting picked up during the 2010-11 school year.
The extra talent, combined with a decline in accounting jobs that CERI pegs at 4 percent to 6 percent, made competition for those jobs exceedingly tough in 2010. While it was hard on students, it was a plus for employers. “Candidates that might normally look for a job in banking or on Wall Street did a double major in finance or accounting,” says Paula Loop, U.S. and global talent leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers. “A lot of students we hired had extra skills.”
At Deloitte, recruiters now use accounting’s crossover appeal to entice finance students as early as freshman year.
“Candidates have become more savvy. They learned from family members or friends before them that the more versatile they can be with their skill set, the more employable they are,” says Deloitte recruiting lead Scott McQuillan.
For the second year in a row, e-commerce jobs were among the fastest-growing opportunities for business undergraduates in the 2011 school year, according to the CERI report.
In 2008 and 2009, EBay says it concentrated its entry-level recruiting at fewer than 10 schools, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area such as the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford. That list has since grown to more than 20, and schools such as Georgia Tech, Cornell, the University of Illinois, and Arizona State University have emerged as reliable sources of talent, says EBay spokeswoman Sara Gorman. The company historically recruits students with degrees in computer science, finance, accounting, and marketing.
As recruiters like EBay cast a wider net for talent, at least one business school has developed a new program to produce it. The University of Washington Foster School of Business introduced a new master’s program in June that expands on its bachelor’s degree in information systems. The school interviewed companies including Boeing (BA), Costco (COST), and Ernst & Young to determine the skills employees need to improve their companies’ e-commerce operations, and built the program around them. Many classes cover emerging technologies, procurement, and inventory management.
Understanding mobile transactions and recognizing the potential in that arena is also integral, says EBay’s Gorman.
Recent college graduates are intimately familiar with “how people interact with their mobile phones in their lives today, and that’s extremely valuable,” she says.
Students searching for jobs in sales and marketing have likely had the toughest job search as those positions are most closely tied to the economy, says CERI’s Gardner.
About 29 percent of employers responding to the most recent CERI survey said they were looking to fill sales and marketing positions, down from 50 percent five years ago.
Marketing recruiting showed modest growth over last year. However, the jobs tend to favor students who pursue business degrees and supplement that education with creative skills, Gardner says. He notes that marketing has long been a discipline that students from non-business programs such as communications and journalism can break into, and entry for those students has become more difficult.
The tendency for marketing job applicants to have advanced analytical skills is increasingly evident at advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.
In fall 2008 the firm ran a recruiting campaign at college business schools called “Plan C”—a slogan playing off the idea that working at an ad agency is the unthought-of, far-removed job option for students most focused on finance and management, says Ogilvy’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion Loren Monroe-Trice. In 2010 the campaign no longer seemed relevant. The firm had a flood of interest from finance and management students who viewed advertising as their primary choice, she says.
Non-business majors pursuing those types of jobs found the competition increasingly formidable, but business majors—or non-business majors with business skills—had less trouble. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2011 graduate Erin McClary majored in strategic communication. By choice, she took classes in business statistics, managerial accounting, financial accounting, and macro and micro economics. She accepted a marketing job at a Florida private equity firm this summer.
The job market benefits of methodically mapping out undergraduate coursework are another legacy of the financial crisis, says Eric Korogluyan, who graduated from Indiana University in May with a degree in finance. During his time at Indiana, he took several real estate courses simply because he was interested in the subject, as well as four accounting classes to make himself more marketable.
“There is always an element of luck,” says Korogluyan, an investment banking analyst in the Chicago office of BMO Capital Markets. “The goal is to mitigate that as much as possible so that you’re prepared no matter what kind of economy you’re looking at.”