Katie Staso's optimism was fading.
The University of Maryland senior had mailed 30 resumes in September to give employers time to peruse her internships and solid grades as a chemical engineering major. But as spring approached, she hadn't heard a peep.
The St. Mary's City native thought she might become another casualty of the recession. Instead, she and other graduating seniors around Maryland are finding that, if they have a little patience and flexibility, there are employment opportunities in a job market that has improved slightly for the first time since 2008.
In late March, Staso got an interview call from one of her original job targets. Others have followed. Staso is actually holding off on accepting an offer, because she's so confident in her prospects. "I'm excited," she said.
"You hear all these horror stories about people being laid off," said Ally Levin, a senior at Stevenson University who has a marketing job waiting for her at Baltimore's MOS Creative. "But it's not as gruesome as people think."
Seniors have heard all the bad news: the 10 percent unemployment rate, economists' predictions that long-term joblessness will become a plague in this country, studies that say college graduates who enter the job market during a recession never make as much money as those who enter in better times.
But hiring trends are positive for the first time in almost two years, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The organization's spring survey found that employers are planning to hire 5.3 percent more new graduates in 2009-2010 than they did in 2008-2009. Hiring was down 22 percent in last spring's survey.
With graduation fast approaching, career counselors at campuses around the state said they're seeing a similar picture. Instead of hearing about major companies on the brink of collapse, they're hearing about mass hiring at Morgan Stanley, Constellation Energy or Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
"Comparing this year to last, I definitely see an increase in the number of jobs posted and the number of internships posted," said Mark Presnell, head of the career counseling center at the Johns Hopkins University. "Students are feeling that things are opening up, so I don't think there's as much anxiety. I think they've actually been pleasantly surprised."
The job market recovers more quickly for new graduates than experienced workers, he said. After all, they're cheaper and have casual mastery of technologies that vex older workers.
Presnell said employers expect students to be more focused on the jobs they're pursuing. "Pre-recession, companies might have been willing to go through more training just so they could hire the best and brightest," he said. "Now, it's more important for students to be able to articulate specific goals for what they want to do. The employer is asking, 'Do you really want to do what we do?'"
Bruce Smeltz, director of the career center at Loyola University Maryland, said last year was the worst he has experienced in 27 years of helping graduates find jobs. But even so, a post-graduation survey found that 77 percent were working and less than 5 percent were still looking for jobs.
"One of the keys is you have to be a little more flexible," he said. "Some kids want to pick their exact location and company, and this isn't the market for that."
A December survey of winter graduates at College Park found that 50 percent had already accepted full-time jobs and that 72 percent said they were engaged in their first choice for post-college work, whether it was a job, graduate school or some form of service.
William Jones Jr., a counselor in the campus career center, said "we were all kind of shocked" at how good the numbers looked.
"It seems as though the economy is thawing," said Ashley Lenz, a Calvert County native who serves as the executive chair of UMCP's Senior Council. "There are a lot of people who do have jobs."
She's not one of them, but Lenz is graduating a year ahead of schedule, so she figures she has wiggle room. Like many of her peers, she's deciding whether to look for her own apartment or return home to save money.
"My dad actually wants me to move back," the business major said.
Whether they're employed or not, recent graduates are moving back home at greater rates, according to surveys conducted by the website CollegeGrad.com. In the Class of 2009, about 80 percent moved home after graduation compared with 67 percent in the Class of 2006, the website reported.
Staso is also considering a move home.
"A few years back, if you moved in with your family, it was a sign that you had failed," she said. "But now, it's acceptable, not embarrassing. Your parents think, 'Oh, you're saving money.'"
Seniors who have jobs locked up seem to have a few traits in common. Most started looking either before this school year or early in the fall. They have interned at multiple companies and in many cases have received full-time offers at the end of those trial runs.