ATLANTA – Neal Caldwell of Woodstock, Ga., has an enviable dilemma. The Kennesaw State finance major, who graduates this month, must choose among "five solid offers" from employers. They include sales positions in Denver, Boston and England, he said.
"The compensation is quite good," he said. "It's really about deciding where I want to live."
At the other end of spectrum is Leah Daniell of Austell, Ga. She's also 22 and graduating with a political science degree from Georgia State. She's applied for more than 30 jobs and spent hours sniffing out clues on websites, sending out resumes and strolling into Big Box retailers to find someone's hand to shake.
"It's not promising" she said.
As the pair's stories show, this year's graduates step into a modestly improving but uneven economy. Some skills are in demand, while many grads – and not just those with liberal arts degrees – scrap for a paycheck healthy enough to keep them out of their parents' basements.
Nearly 30,000 undergraduate degrees will be awarded this spring by metro Atlanta colleges and the University of Georgia in Athens. The job market is a lot stronger than when they were freshmen: As the summer of 2010 ended, the national jobless rate was 9.5 percent. Now, the unemployment rate is 6.3 percent.
In Georgia, where the recession was harsher than average, the jobless rate in mid-2010 climbed to 10.2 percent. The most recent figure for the state was 7 percent, down from 8.4 percent last spring.
There's no doubt prospects have brightened.
"In the past year, I would say that we have seen a subtle shift," said Eileen Buecher, associate director of the Emory Career Center. "Our students are getting offers. It is not substantial, but it's almost across the board."
Companies are more willing to hire than in the last few years but still more selective than they were before the recession, Buecher said.
For college grads age 20 to 24, the jobless rate in April was 4.4 percent, down from 7.2 percent a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The jobless rate for their peers who have only a high school diploma is 13.8 percent.
Improvement is in the air, said Scott Williams, director of the University of Georgia career center. The autumn career fair at UGA drew 2,000 students – just like the year before. But the number of employers showing up to hire increased from 199 to 228.
"That would indicate that there is greater opportunity," he said. "The anecdotal evidence has been positive. We have been hearing about multiple job offers. We certainly see what looks like an increase over last year's graduating class."
College grads average much higher pay than their non-college peers, according to government statistics: The median weekly pay for college grads of 25 or older is $1,108, compared to $651 for those with just a high school diploma, according to the BLS.
Demand for grads trained in engineering and computer science is especially strong in metro Atlanta, and those skills are generally the best paid, said Harold Simmons, interim executive director for the Georgia Tech Center for Career Discovery and Development. They average about $60,000 their first year, he said.
The average college graduate makes up for the expense of school in less than 20 years, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
Of course, not all degrees are equal.
Among recent graduates, jobless rates range from 3 percent for those with degrees in health care to 8 percent for those with liberal arts degrees, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Nationally, the most hiring is being done in computer software and nursing, followed by science and other tech jobs, said Tony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Specific skills are no guarantee, though. Hiring is weak for civil engineering and architecture, he said.
Peachtree City-based Panasonic Automotive Systems, hired 100 people last year and has 50 openings now, said Stephen Childs, director of global HR for the Pansonic division. Most positions are in software, but the company has also added employees in sales and marketing, purchasing and other corporate jobs.
"New grads bring a really fresh perspective," Childs said. "Not only do they have a passion for designing (the technology), but they understand it. They live it."
Similarly, Athenahealth has been hiring new grads with all kinds of degrees for sales and other roles such as managing accounts, said Jocelin Bowen, recruiting manager at the Alpharetta-based company.
"We have a very robust training program so we are able to train people to do what they need to do."
Alyssa Albert, 22, of Lawrenceville, Ga., is graduating from Kennesaw State with a communications degree. Finding a job was challenging – finding one she liked was even harder. She thought for a time about an internship as a way to get a foot in the door, but many are unpaid now so she decided against it.
"I think I need to get paid," she said.
She eventually landed a job at a Marietta church doing public relations and writing.
In a slow-growing economy, more grads choose temp work, said Stephanie Searcy, regional vice president for Robert Half International.
"New grads know technology – often they know things that five years ago didn't even exist," she said. "So companies get someone with less experience, but they are often getting advanced technical skills and that really sets them apart."
Andrew Davis, 27, of Atlanta, graduated from Oglethorpe in 2011 with a math degree. He wanted to be an actuary for an insurance company. "I found out that you need to take some professional exams. And everybody wanted some sort of experience, but how do you get experience without a job?"
Someone suggested starting as a temp. Initially reluctant, he took the advice and was placed as an office temp. After five months, he was hired to do that job. Eight months later the company hired him as an actuary.
One way to improve your odds is to find a place where your skills are in higher demand, said Mark Hamrick, policy analyst for Bankrate.com, a consumer finance website. "In the job market, it's location, location, location, and it's sector, sector, sector, too. It does speak to an individual's need to be mobile."
But with the right match of skills and job, many grads make progress without moving.
Angelica Calderon, 22, a product of North Gwinnett High School, is graduating from Emory's Goizueta Business School. She has a job in sales and analytics in the Chicago offices of Colgate-Palmolive.
"If you are in business school you are more than likely to come out with a job," she said. "A lot of my friends are still wondering what they are going to do."
HOW GRADS FARE, BY FIELD
Many are under-employed, doing jobs that do not require a bachelor's degree
Major; % of jobs with BA Required; BA Not Required; Unemployed
Leisure & Hospitality; 33%; 63%; 4%
Agriculture & Natural Resources; 38%; 57%; 5%
Technologies; 38%; 55%; 6%
Communications; 40%; 54%; 6%
Liberal Arts; 40%; 52%; 8%
Business; 44%; 50%; 6%
Social Sciences; 45%; 48%; 7%
Sciences; 51%; 43%; 6%
Architecture & Construction; 60%; 32%; 8%
Math & Computers; 65%; 29%; 6%
Health; 75%; 22%; 3%
Education; 75%; 22%; 4%
Engineering; 75%; 20%; 5%
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York
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