Thomas College senior Elisabeth Sanborn, recently shown on the Waterville campus, had several job offers when she began applying for professional positions. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — As she sought out a summer internship last year, college senior Elisabeth Sanborn says she was also “wildly” applying for various professional positions.

She certainly wasn’t expecting to land a full-time job.

But over the course of several weeks, she received five different offers, and when it came time to make a decision she opted to join GHM Insurance in Waterville as an insurance agent. She continues to work there today, moving into a part-time role as she’s back in classes.

“It was a little crazy,” said Sanborn, 19, an accounting and finance major at Thomas College in Waterville who took a number of college courses while in high school.

Sanborn’s experience was dramatically different from those who graduated just before her, when companies abruptly stopped hiring as the pandemic forced many companies to either temporarily close or scale back.

Meanwhile, Sanborn is on track to graduate this spring and said she knows of other students who are in the same situation as her — having a sudden wealth of job opportunities even before college graduation.

College officials in central Maine say their students have far more options as they enter the workforce, and employers are coming to schools more often and earlier in the year looking to recruit students ahead of graduation. Employers nationally expect to hire 7.2% more graduates from the class of 2021 than the class of 2020, according to a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey. Nearly 30% of employers reported they plan to hire more graduates, and only 8% said they planned to decrease hiring.

“Now more than ever we are seeing many opportunities for youth in our state, and there is a place for everyone in our economy,” said Jessica Picard, communications manager at the Maine Department of Labor. “With the tight labor market, job seekers (including those in college) have many options.”

The department encourages employers to post openings on Maine JobLink and there are now more than 21,500 jobs posted on the site. The sectors with the most postings are health care and social assistance, with approximately 3,970 jobs, followed by professional, scientific and technical services with 1,118 positions and finance and insurance with 763.

As the economy has recovered from the early stages of the pandemic, hiring needs have increased faster than companies can hire, creating a labor shortage across the country, labor experts say. Initial claims filed by Maine residents for unemployment benefits fell to a new pandemic low, and across the country, the economy has recovered around 17 million jobs since the start of the pandemic, the Associated Press reported.

The level of opportunity for students is unlike anything Ed Cervone has seen before. Cervone serves at Thoma College’s vice president of innovative partnerships.

“Twenty years ago, I would be in a room talking about a bunch of workers who were applying for one job — there just weren’t the jobs to meet the demand in the workforce,” said Cervone. “It is totally flipped. Now I have a roomful of employers who are wondering where their workers are.”

A SHARP RISE

Administrators at colleges across the region are seeing the same opportunities for graduates.

Brenda McAleer, associate provost at the University of Maine at Augusta and dean of the college of professional studies, said that after the fairly “bleak” prospects for graduates last year, program coordinators at the college have seen a sharp rise in job offers.

Students in the UMA nursing program traditionally have had to pass the National Licensure Exam for Nurses before they would be considered for hire, McAleer explained. But now nursing students are hired and work other roles until they pass the exam, she said.

Similarly, faculty in the mental health and human services program are regularly fielding calls from agencies asking for students they would recommend. And it’s the same for the veterinary technology program. Many employers are hiring students to work part-time now as they finish their education, McAleer said.

“One of my veterinary technology employees works on Fridays at an emergency clinic up in Bangor, and she said with her are four of our students, three seniors and one junior, because they are so short-staffed that they’ve been hiring based on her recommendation — and the fact that students are, of course, very talented — hiring them to work part-time, allowing them to still be able to finish their education,” McAleer said.

Nancy Foster, associate professor of dental health at UMA and the dental health programs coordinator for the school, said that not only has she seen students get multiple offers and signing bonuses before graduating from their program, but she has also seen students with jobs lined up before they even begin.

“All of the students have multiple job offers, or some of the students would work in the summer as internships and things, helping out in a dental office, and before they even start the program, they’ll say once you’re done I’m gonna hire you,” Foster said.

Those opportunities have also increased the demand to get into the dental programs, Foster said. In an average year, the college sees about 60 to 70 qualified applicants for the dental hygiene program. This year the college had more than 100 applicants competing for just 20 spots in the program.

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS EARLY

It’s a similar situation for Colby College in Waterville. The college normally works with around 1,200 employers total throughout the year through its DavisConnects program. At this time last year, the college had interacted with 273 employers. This year that number has skyrocketed to 428, a 57% increase.

Lisa Noble, director of employer partnerships and emerging pathways at Colby College, said that who is looking to hire depends on the industry. Some industries such as finance, consulting and tech normally start the hiring process now in the fall and may have moved up their timeline slightly.

Other industries, like education, marketing and media, don’t yet have enough information to start hiring yet. But what has changed, is that employers in those fields are being more aggressive about building relationships with students now.

“These employers are trying to get on students’ radar sooner, so they’re asking to do information sessions all through the fall months just to build their talent brand and get students to think about them as potential employers,” Noble said. “So when they do open a job and are posting opportunities, students will already have a relationship with them.”

Despite the wealth of opportunities staff and faculty at colleges are seeing, it doesn’t seem to have fully sunk in for students yet.

“I don’t think students have really settled into the knowledge that they’re a desirable commodity,” Noble said. “They take the process very seriously and they’re obviously trying to optimize their outcomes.”

For Sanborn, the Thomas College student, the opportunities she sees available mean she can focus on what kind of job she wants, instead of scrambling to get anything she can. And that lessens the pressure, just a little bit, especially after seeing older friends struggle in recent years.

“Looking at all of those graduates who were freaking out, and a lot of them were my friends, I was thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, what happens when I graduate?’” Sanborn said. “So I definitely feel more secure in my spot now than I’m sure the graduates from a few years ago felt.”

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