THE MONTHS since January have been almost a breeze for University of Maryland, College Park senior Jessica Laus. The aerospace engineering major accepted a job early this year with Sikorsky Aircraft Co. in Stratford, Conn.
Laus and others in the Class of 2005 are facing the best hiring season since 2001, say college career counselors and employers. College graduates can expect more job openings and slightly higher salaries this year compared with 12 months ago, according to studies by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pa.
Receiving a job offer "was exhilarating," said Laus, 22, a native of Pittsburgh. "It was nice to know someone was going to pay me to be an engineer, and I could finally stop studying it."
The 254 employers who responded to the National Association of Colleges and Employers said they plan to hire 13.1 percent more college graduates than last year thanks to an improved economy and increased hiring overall. The study was completed at the end of last year, but Andrea Koncz, the association's employment information manager, said next month's update will show similar results.
The association also reported that 80 percent of employers surveyed this year said they felt the job market for graduating seniors was "good or excellent" compared with 38 percent in 2004. Employers seeking candidates from popular fields like accounting, business, engineering and computer-related disciplines have stepped up their recruiting practices, a trend local colleges have experienced.
A separate study by the organization in February reported that about 85 percent of college majors show a salary increase over last year, according to 120 schools that responded to the survey.
Marketing majors saw an increase in average salary offers of 4 percent to $37,519. Average salary offers for accounting majors rose 2.4 percent to $43,050. Engineering students, whose first-year salaries range between $43,000 and $54,000, will see average salary increases between 2.1 percent and 5.1 percent. Liberal arts majors posted an average salary decline of 3.6 percent to $29,060.
At the University of Maryland, on-campus interviews have increased by 30 percent in three years from 2,600 during the 2001-2002 school year to 3,400 during the 2003-2004 school year, said Javaune Adams-Gaston, executive director of the university's career center. She said she expects on-campus interviews to easily surpass 3,500 by next month.
Besides interviews, employers also conduct information sessions on- and off-campus to give students a sense of what it would be like to work for them.
Loyola College held a job fair last month that attracted 103 employers, a 72 percent increase over the previous year.
The number of employers at a job fair held last fall at Towson University increased by a quarter over 2003. The school also had more than 1,100 new employers advertise positions on its job posting site.
Another Maryland soon-to-be graduate, Rami Nasr, a native of Lebanon who will finish a master's degree in computer engineering in May, said he became serious about job searching about two months ago.
"I'm a little laid-back," the 23-year-old said. "I'm doing my thesis right now, so I haven't been able to spend as much time looking."
He had two on-campus interviews scheduled last week. Using the university's career services has helped navigate the job market, he said.
"Searching on the Internet, it's flooded with people," he said. "It's probably harder than the lottery."
But, as when studying for an exam or writing a paper, it's best for seniors to start looking early.
Laus decided in seventh grade she wanted to be an aerospace engineer after years of launching small rockets with her father.
She spent a year working as a co-op student at the Glenn. L. Martin Wind Tunnel on Maryland's campus. The internship gave her a firsthand look at what working in the field would be like and helped her meet potential new employers.
"I collected business cards and just started calling people last September," Laus said.
She landed about three interviews by e-mailing resumes to her contacts. Sikorsky - a division of United Technologies - her top choice, was the first to offer her a job, which will pay her more than $50,000 a year.
Accounting firm KPMG starts making offers to graduating seniors the summer before their last year of school. Those offers go to students who did well in the firm's internship program, a key component to landing fresh talent, said John Keenan, Baltimore office managing partner for KPMG.
The internship program usually produces about nine or 10 hires. This year, KPMG plans to hire 17 college seniors and probably will make 20 offers in the Baltimore office.
"It's a very competitive market; the same firms are going after the same people," Keenan said. KPMG targets accounting majors, but many employers are becoming less precise about what majors they look for, career counselors said.