If there's only one job for a prospective college graduate in this sluggish economy, Justin Stadelmyer intends to land it.
The 20-year-old finance major at Duquesne University has done everything he can to burnish his resume: attending networking events and job fairs, holding a range of finance-related offices in Duquesne's student government and lining up great internships, including one with Northwestern Mutual Financial Network and another this coming summer with PNC Financial Services.
"You get the internship, then you have value to bring to the table," the upbeat junior from Mars says.
After two years of grim job forecasts, many other college graduates are undoubtedly thinking along similar lines. It's not enough to have a diploma, they've come to realize; employers now look at applicants' work and life experiences, as well as their talent and communication skills.
"I feel like companies are more selective, so you have to be more aggressive about what you do," said Mr. Stadelmyer. "You have to put yourself in a position to give yourself options."
The good news is that options are making a comeback.
Both national surveys and local career placement officials say the market for new college graduates seems to be reviving, if only incrementally for majors such as liberal arts.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers says a poll of employers shows the job market for new college grads "continues to show improvement" and has increased significantly from a year ago.
Another employer survey, done at Michigan State University, found that "despite the gloomy national labor market situation, the college segment is poised to rebound this year," with the biggest U.S. gains in the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic regions.
That's us, folks.
The pollsters concluded that hiring of applicants with a bachelor's degree is expected to increase by 10 percent this coming year, based on their survey of 4,600 employers, with the most promising areas being in manufacturing, professional and scientific services, the federal government and large commercial banks.
"It does seem to be getting better to some extent, depending on the particular discipline," said Bill Spangler, associate dean at Duquesne's Palumbo-Donahue School of Business. "I wouldn't say it's vibrant, but it's coming back."
"We're definitely moving in the right direction, especially for new graduates coming out with a four-year degree or even associate's degrees," said Aubrey Reed of Accountemps, Downtown, which specializes in accounting and finance positions.
Nearly 40 percent of employers in the Michigan State survey say they would seek candidates from all majors, as they are more interested in the candidate's skills and abilities than their academic history.
While salaries remain stagnant, or have even gone down, the researcher found that "students who have started their job search early, are flexible and can express their skills and abilities in terms of how they add value to the organization will be in the best position to seize opportunities in this [still] very competitive job market."
While not typical, Carnegie Mellon University students are already seeing daylight and are in some cases getting blinded by it.
"I have had students tell me, 'I have three or four offers and I don't know how to choose,' or 'I don't know how to negotiate for a better offer ethically.' That's very impressive to me," said Farouk Dey, director of CMU's Career and Professional Development Center, who added that the school had to turn away companies from the September job fair because the spaces were all taken. The CMU website has 900 to 1,000 postings from various employers for its students and alums to sort through, he said.
Cheryl Finlay, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Office of Student Employment and Placement Assistance, said her office had seen increased interest by employers to participate in career fairs and campus interviews, too.
"Technical, business and health-care-related jobs are still strong, and we are starting to see an increase in consumer sales and business-to-business opportunities," she said.
That doesn't mean that universities aren't still intent on giving graduates their best shot at the best jobs.
This month, CMU arranged a two-day job placement event in New York City for 75 finance majors. The first day, they will network with CMU alums and potential employers, such as the financial services firm J.P. Morgan Chase. The second day will be filled with interviews for real jobs.
Duquesne has made job preparation part of the four-year education for business majors. Beginning their freshman year, those students participate in a noncredit professional development certificate program that will take them through putting a resume together, to interviewing and networking, to business etiquette dinners to learn which plate is for bread and which is for dessert.
"The parents love seeing this," said Mr. Spangler. "They're starting to look more and more at the bottom line. They want to know the [job] placement rate and average starting salaries" for graduates.
Mr. Stadelmyer is more driven than most students -- he stopped by Duquesne's career services office the first week of his freshman year, back in 2008, about the same time the Lehman Brothers collapse heralded the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Not long after, he was hearing stories from newly minted Duquesne graduates about the dismal job market.
Rather than panicking, Mr. Stadelmyer saw that as a challenge and stepped up his game even more.
"I want to be the person who says, 'I did whatever it took.'" In five years, he says without hesitation, he sees himself "either running my own company or working as a financial analyst Downtown."
Don't bet against him, regardless of what the economy does.
Steve Twedt: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1963.