By Jilian Mincer and Jennifer Merritt
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sean Chua expected the hunt for his first job after college to be tough. After all, he watched his brother struggle to find a position when he graduated back in 2008.
But his fears were unwarranted. The 21-year-old justice major at American University sent out only seven resumes before getting an offer earlier this month from IBM for an IT consulting job, making him a beneficiary of a turnaround in the labor market for U.S. graduates. "My mom's first position was with IBM so she is particularly proud," says Chua.
Hiring is back in a big way on many college campuses, one of several signs a recovery in the U.S. jobs market is gaining traction. After four years during which many students graduated to find no job and had only their loans to show for their studies, most college campuses are teeming with companies eager to hire.
A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found 2012 hiring is expected to climb 10.2 percent, above a previous estimate of 9.5 percent.
Companies such as General Electric, Amazon, Apple and Barclays Global are looking for new staff, even if some firms remain below the pre-recession levels of new hiring. In another sign of the recovery, some first-time job seekers are receiving multiple offers.
At University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the career service office has seen up to now a 7.4 percent increase in the number of interviews of students by potential employers from last year and the number of companies seeking to recruit for full-time jobs is up 9.2 percent.
Undergraduate business majors reporting full-time job offers is up about 10 percent.
Career experts at a dozen of U.S. schools said they have seen an increase of 15 to 30 percent in the number of companies attending campus career fairs. At University of Florida, the fall career fair garnered 15 percent more companies in attendance than in 2010.
And 150 companies asked to conduct interviews versus about 100 in recent years, said Ja'Net Glover, associate director of employer relations at the school.
The increase in demand was so significant that it was the first time in years the school had to use both the first and second floors of the school's basketball facility for interviews.
"It's kind of like a no-brainer," says Kathy Sims. Director of Career Services at UCLA. "The economy is better and the college recruitment market is improving."
While the U.S. jobless rate fell to 8.3 percent in February, unemployment among college graduates over the age of 25 stood at 4.2 percent. Historically, their jobless rate is half that of Americans with only a high school education. Over the recession, unemployment among graduates climbed as high as 5 percent, sparking protests over the rising tuition cost of some U.S. colleges.
U.S. unemployment data for March, due for release on April 6, is expected to show a total of just over 200,000 jobs were created in the month, keeping the overall unemployment rate at 8.3 percent.
BACKLOG FROM PAST YEARS, INTERNS SOAR
College graduates' earnings are also on the rebound. NACE says the median wage for first-time job seekers after college for 2012 is up 4.5 percent higher than a year ago to $42,569.
That initial pay level can resonate over the span of a career. Several studies show that the life-time earnings for workers who enter the labor force at time of economic recession are lower than lifetime earnings of those who are hired amid an economic recovery.
Given the tepid recovery of the economy, some caution is required.
In 2008, many college graduates who had already accepted job offers were later away. After the run of lean years, many graduates are stuck in low-paying jobs and professions that never intended to follow, meaning there could be a backlog of well-educated workers who need to get their careers on track as well as new graduates.
However, with a wide range of employers -- from automakers to investment banks -- back on campus offering internships and full-time jobs, and not just to engineering, computer science and math majors, the outlook for the Class of 2012 looks rosy.
General Electric wants to hire 5,000 interns this year, up from its usual 3,000 to 4,000. Since 70 percent of its full-time hires come from the interns pool, Steve Canale, head of global recruiting, said that uptick will also translate into more full-time jobs after graduation.
"(Companies) are saying, 'we have an aging workforce, and we have to replenish the pipeline.' GE has always done it, but this year a lot of other companies are also reloading their talent pool," Canale said.
Chrysler said it plans to hire 400 interns this year compared to 256 in 2011. The automaker has also hired almost 4,000 salaried employees since June 2009, about a quarter of which are new college graduates.
The pick-up in hiring extends to industries that were among the hardest hit during the financial crisis. Schools report that banking and financial services companies have returned to campus for the Class of 2012.
It's a stark contrast from just a few years ago when smaller firms appeared on campuses to replace the corporations no longer showing up.
"Even students with lower grades are finding opportunities," says Notre Dame's Svete, who believes job placement at the school is up about 7 percent. In 2009, only 75 percent of students had jobs or plans for graduate school at graduation. This year, the school expects that to climb to 85 to 88 percent, closer to the 90 percent level of 2007.
Nathan Pace, a senior at American University, hasn't yet found a job, but is confident for his future job. He started the college four years ago and he has since seen each class of graduating seniors have better luck finding jobs.
Many of his friends recently secured job offers. "The vibe on campus is that people are excited," says Pace.
(Reporting By Jilian Mincer and Jennifer Merritt, Editing by Tiziana Barghini; Desking by Andrew Hay)