College seniors face slow-but-steady job market

Hiring ramping up one year into pandemic

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When Grand Canyon University senior Rabekah Neu crossed the stage at graduation on Monday, she did so with a full-time job offer in supply chain management from Amazon.com Inc.

The Buckeye native found the job listing on Indeed in October and went through the virtual hiring process before securing the Phoenix-based position, which she starts in the coming weeks. Having a job nailed down before graduation offered Ms. Neu a ton of relief heading into her final semester of school.

“It helped me to focus on the last semester of school and finishing up all that I need to finish before starting the job,” she said. “It was nice to have something lined up and not have to worry about that.”

The 2021 job market is a far cry from the employment prospects she and many other students faced last year as the coronavirus pandemic put the local job market through upheaval. Ms. Neu was on the search for the all-important summer internship, applying to nearly 30 before finding one with the state government. It wasn’t in her chosen field, but Ms. Neu considers the experience to be “invaluable.”

“I was able to use my knowledge in transfer into their work and then likewise they were able to kind of transfer their knowledge and their wisdom, and I was able to kind of translate into what I do every day,” she said.

Ms. Neu said many of her friends are having to “dig deep” and adapt to a changing labor market one year into the pandemic. Despite many companies and businesses again being fully open for business, some industries have been slower to hire than others.

“A general rule of thumb is just being flexible,” she said. “A lot of my friends might not be able to get the position they wanted right away, but they’re also having to kind of just explore different options and see what’s available.”

The U.S. economy seems to be on a slow but steady road to recovery. The Labor Department announced new applications for unemployment had dropped by 193,000 and jobless claims had dropped sharply from a peak of 900,000 at the start of the year, according to a March jobs report released Thursday. Arizona’s unemployment rate went from 6.9% in February to 6.7% in March. It was just 5% in March 2020 pre-pandemic.

But a recent report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers found companies surveyed project hiring 7.2% more new college graduates from the Class of 2021 than they hired from the Class of 2020.

Haley Fagerlie, executive director of strategic employer initiatives and internships at GCU, said employers seem more motivated to rebuild their teams now after a year of losses.

“We had lost about 1,000 employer contacts from our employer network due to the many company changes that took place during the pandemic,” she said. “We have now regained, and our employer contacts continue to grow quickly with companies that want to work with us in recruiting our talent.”

Ms. Fegerlie said the loss of internships was tough for both students and employers, and it removed the internship-to-job pipeline from the equation in many cases. Moving forward, she said GCU will continue to prepare its students for the labor market’s most pressing needs.

“The focus should continue to be on learning what in-demand opportunities exist for our job seekers and making them aware of the skills they need,” she said. “With new companies coming to market in technology finance and insurance, logistics and cybersecurity the continued job growth looks promising.”

Her sentiments were shared by Darcy Renfro, who has worked as chief workforce and economic development officer for the Maricopa County Community College District for the past four years. Ms. Renfro said the district is focusing on upskilling and retraining those who find themselves currently unemployed.

“The focus is really on short-term training, quick-skill certifications, things that will help somebody who’s out of work get reemployed quickly and maybe a new field altogether,” she said. “We’re doubling down and ramping up right now.”

Ms. Renfro noted the Valley’s hospitality industry has taken one of the pandemic’s hardest economic hits, so finding those furloughed or out-of-work employees positions with in-demand fields, such as health care, has been a priority.

For graduating college seniors, she said it might still be tough to find work in some spaces, but having a degree of any kind will always give job seekers an edge.

“I think it’s going to be tough in some spaces,” said Ms. Renfro. “They started on a path toward a career before the pandemic began, and now as the economy changes and job growth changes as a result, they may or may not find themselves with good job prospects.”

She also said Arizona’s economy has fared pretty well throughout the past year and is flourishing in certain sectors, pointing to all the semiconductor work entering the Valley. Ms. Renfro said the community college district is constantly evaluating job prospects in different sectors to determine which programs to focus on across its 10 campuses and which to phase out in order to give its students the best shot at a job post-graduation.

“I think our community college graduates will find themselves with good job prospects for the most part, because their degrees are specifically set to a set of skills that are important in whatever field,” she said.

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