More than a year ago, marketing major Carrie Belanger applied for an internship at Google. When she didn’t hear back — not even a phone call — Belanger, undaunted, continued her job search, applying for more than 40 positions.

A few months ago, Google contacted her, asking if she’d be interested in a full-time job. An updated résumé and an interview clinched the deal. Next week Belanger, who graduated from Iowa State University in December, will start work as an associate account strategist at Google’s office in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

For grads in search of that first career job, 2015 is shaping up to be a banner year. Businesses are recruiting college graduates at levels “not seen since the dot-com frenzy of the late 1990s,” said Phil Gardner, director of the College Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

U.S. employers expect to bump up their collegiate hiring by 16 percent this year, Gardner said. The National Association of Colleges and Employers last fall predicted a more conservative 8.3 percent increase in hiring.

The percentage may be higher this year because employers have extended their hiring through spring, Gardner said. “Last year hiring was over by December.”

Felipe Alves, 24, who will graduate with a degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on May 9, starts work May 18 at Reinke Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Deshler, Nebraska, a manufacturer of center-pivot irrigation systems.

“Internships are a must,” said Alves, who interned at P3: Partners in Pollution Prevention, a UNL program that works with local businesses.

Career counselors agree: College grads that have nailed down jobs have résumés that include internships, special skills and campus activities related to their field.

Faculty members and counselors at campus career centers in Nebraska and Iowa say they’ve seen a noticeable jump in employer attendance at career fairs and in job postings this year.

Creighton University had to turn away employers for its fall career fair, the university’s largest, because the ballroom can hold only 100, said Jeremy Fisher, associate director of the career center. “It’s an indication the job market is really heating up.”

Employer recruiting activities also are up at Iowa State’s College of Business, said Tammy Stegman, assistant director of career services at the college.

Job prospects for graduates with degrees in architecture, interior design and community and regional planning, industries hit hard during the Great Recession, also are brighter, said Tiffany Atilano of Iowa State’s College of Design. “We’ve had people from the Carolinas, New York, Texas, Connecticut, Kansas City, Chicago and Minnesota here to recruit.”

Companies may have grads high on their to-hire list, but they aren’t planning to lower standards “and pull in anyone with a pulse — as was the case in 1998 or 1999,” Gardner said.

Employers, said Fisher, are looking for experience: “Did they complete a service project or internship? ... If they were a science major, did they do undergraduate research?”

Graduates with degrees in fine arts, humanities or social science should expect their job search to take longer than their counterparts with sought-after degrees in science, engineering, technology, accounting or mathematics.

Still, Fisher said, he recently met a psychology major with two offers, and Creighton expects to better its 2014 placement rate of 97 percent within six months of graduation.

Sarah Bergeron, 22, about to graduate with a degree in graphic design from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, doesn’t have a job yet, but in her effort to secure one, she’s designed her own logo, business cards and letterhead.

The Omaha native, who served as president of UNO’s advertising club, designing its monthly meeting posters, has applied to multiple internships in the area. Local agencies, expecting business to pick up in the next six months, have encouraged her to check back.

Belanger, about to start a job at Google next week, also was active outside the classroom, participating in ISU’s CyBIZ Lab, which pairs students with local businesses.

Belanger created a marketing plan for a small window company in Lansing, Iowa. “They didn’t have a marketing department, so I was it,” said Belanger, who waited tables and tended bar to pay her way through college.

The 26-year-old, who chose not to enter college directly after high school — at one point selling vacuum cleaners door to door — also served as a Sony on-campus product representative and developed a smartphone app to drum up business for bar and restaurant owners in Ames, Iowa.

“Doing all that stuff gave me real-world experience and showed entrepreneurial spirit,” Belanger said.

The improved economic environment is giving job-seekers a psychological boost. Unlike students who graduated in the midst of the Great Recession or its aftershocks, new grads are optimistic about their future, said Chris Timm, an associate director of career services at UNL.

“Students feel like they have more options. Some of that sense of desperation might be diminishing,” she added.

The job market has rebounded to normal, said Eric Thompson, a UNL economist and director of its Bureau of Business Research, and it’s “nothing like a few years ago, when real capable students were having trouble launching their careers.”

Graduates who want to stay in Nebraska or alumni who went out-of state several years ago for work should be able to find opportunities back here, Thompson said.

“We’re seeing growth in health care, industries that require engineering — development, construction, manufacturing. We’re seeing a lot of growth in business and professional services ... and it’s even holding steady in information, which employs a lot of people with technical skills. It’s still challenging in media, but not like it was three or four years ago: We have a lot of journalism students here.”

Job prospects for college grads are improving for several reasons. The biggest nudge has come from the improving economy, Gardner said. As a result, big companies, especially those that didn’t add to their payroll in recent years, are expanding.

But it’s also because employees who hunkered down during the Great Recession, often shouldering heavier workloads without a pay raise, are sprinting for the door.

“People now realize that to get any kind of pay raise they have to move,” said Gardner, “so we’re seeing a lot of turnover. That means new openings for college grads.”

And baby boomers, expected to retire at a rate of 5,000 to 7,000 a day for the next several years, also are creating vacancies.

Grace Rich, 23, who graduated in December with a degree in neuroscience from UNO, now works full time at a campus research laboratory, but funding for her position is expected to expire in the next three to six months. Rich is confident she will find another job.

But she’s not sitting still. She has tapped her professors for job leads, attended career fairs, sat down with recruiters from small, independent companies as well as Fortune 500 firms and is “using the connections I made at the UNO career fair.”

The state of the economy has made some graduates comfortable with taking short detours to pursue community service or nonprofit jobs.

Jonathan Acosta, who is graduating from UNO in May with degrees in neuroscience and biology, plans to work a year with College Possible. The nonprofit AmeriCorps organization assists low-income students in getting through college, “showing them the resources they need to succeed academically,” said Acosta, who has studied immunity in zebra finches as part of an undergraduate research grant.

Belanger, who sent out more than 40 résumés and cover letters, tailoring each to the job opening, said she still encounters seniors who don’t yet have a job lined up.

“I’ll ask them how many résumés they’ve sent out, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, three.’ Hey, I sent out three over lunch!”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1142, janice.podsada@owh.com

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