College hiring returns after two-year lull

July 5, 2011, 9:00 AM UTC

No one’s calling it a boom, but big business is back to mining for talent among recent graduates.

By Josh Dawsey, contributor

FORTUNE — After a two-year hiatus, major corporations are starting to hit college career-fair tables once again. Bank of America plans to offer 1,300 new graduates jobs in 2011, and Microsoft (MSFT) will visit more business schools, marking the first time the company has expanded its footprint since 2009.

Hiring of the young and talented may not be back all the way — Bank of America’s (BAC) new headcount goal is 10% to 15% higher than the last two years but is still close to 2008 levels. But with the school year wrapped, college career centers are finding that job opportunities are once again a reality.

“We ask our members kind of what they’re anticipating for the next year, and those who have an idea are basically expecting more of the same, or maybe even a little bit more in terms of hiring,” Ed Koc, research director at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. “But everything is dependent on the economy in general.”

Koc says businesses weren’t expecting the decrease in hiring that came in 2008 “when the market crashed and everything changed.”

“It wasn’t until January 2009 the people we deal with realized they weren’t going to be hiring that year,” he says.

But now that the numbers are ticking back up, career counselors and students across the country, welcome the rise as a promising sign of the economy’s gradual return.

“We’ve had a major financial event, but the outlook for our graduates is not nearly as dire as it was,” says Wendy Kuran, an associate dean at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. “It’s coming back, slowly but surely.”

Planned job offers for recent graduates are up 19.3% from 2010, according to a recent report from the National Association for Colleges and Employers. The study comes from self-reported data by hundreds of companies worldwide. Those gains are in sharp contrast to 2009, when hiring dropped more than 20% across the country from 2008.

2010’s hiring increase was especially prominent in the northeast, where new hires rose 25.6%. Hiring climbed in all regions, with a 20.2% spike in the Midwest, a 19.3% increase in the West, and a 7.9% bump in the Southeast. NACE anticipates continued improvement in 2012.

“Three years ago, there was a shock,” says Brandon Rodriguez, a recent Duke graduate, who just landed a job at Intel (INTC) after almost a year of searching. “But I think the optimism rate is now going up. And if there’s not optimism immediately, there will be in the next six months or so.”

What came back in 2011 — and in some cases grew dramatically from even 2008 — were jobs in technology and engineering, Koc says.

“We certainly have more employers trying to hire computer science students than we have computer science students,” says Lynne Sebille-White, senior assistant director at the University of Michigan’s career center. Other growth areas include social media companies, startups, and companies hiring for “green” efforts.

The Great Recession forced many colleges to cut back on their job-fairs. Michigan had to cut its event in half to one day. But with an uptick in recruiters and jobs, it’s now back up to two.

“I wouldn’t say we’re back in boomtown quite yet,” Sebille-White says. “But we’re definitely better than we were.”