WASHINGTON –– The graduating class of 2011 is armed with something college graduates haven’t seen in the past four years: an improved job outlook.

It sure beats a nice briefcase, luggage or jewelry.

Employers are planning to hire 19.3 percent more new college graduates this year than last year – the highest increase since 2007 – according to a new report released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

The report, released May 12, shows an even brighter outlook than the 13 percent increase in the number of college graduate hires it predicted last fall.

Starting salaries also are better. In February, the Bethlehem, Pa.-based organization reported that the average starting salary offers for college seniors were up about 3.5 percent from the same time last year – a first since 2008.

These glimmers of good news have not gone unnoticed on college campuses.

Gillian Steele, managing director of the career center at Vincentian-run DePaul University in Chicago, said the market for this year’s 6,924 graduates looks even better than the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ prediction.

He said the career center had nearly 50 percent more job postings listed this year than the previous year and more job postings in March than they had since January 2008. Of these job postings, 83 percent were for full-time jobs primarily in professional services, technology, finance, accounting, banking and government and nonprofit sectors.

The national survey shows that hiring by industry has increased nearly across the board, except for government jobs. Recent college graduates are particularly in demand at oil and gas extraction companies, chemical manufacturers and computer and electronics companies. The financial services sector – banks, financial firms, insurance and real estate companies – is also increasing its hiring of new graduates, rebounding after huge layoffs in recent years.

For the past three years, the employment outlook for DePaul’s graduates – and college graduates nationally – has been in flux. During the recession, the job market for new graduates plummeted. Jobless graduates ended up moving home with their parents, looking for part-time work not in their career paths or going to graduate school to delay the job search.

This year, the state of the U.S. job market improved slightly with the addition of 192,000 jobs, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Job gains were in fields of manufacturing, professional and business services and healthcare fields. But still, the unemployment rate was at 9 percent in April and economists say it could take years for the job market to return to its former days.

In this mixed bag of more available jobs in a still troubled economy, today’s graduates have their work cut out for them just to get work.

Louis Lamorte, director of career services at La Salle University, a Christian Brothers school in Philadelphia, said: “The bad news is competition is still very high, which means graduates need to make connections to have their resume avoid the circular file.”

He advised members of this year’s graduating class to be persistent with their job search and to use all resources available especially networks of friends and alumni through online networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

Jason Eckert, director of career services for Marianist-run University of Dayton, echoed this advice, saying students should be sure to use Twitjobsearch.com – a search engine that compiles job openings posted through Twitter – or Indeed.com which searches the web for job postings.

He said the university’s graduates have done especially well finding jobs in the health care industry and information technology and cybersecurity careers.

This year, the university has had an increase in the number of job and internship postings as well as employer on-campus recruiting.

Ann Pauley, vice president for advancement at Trinity Washington University, told Catholic News Service May 20 that she thought the school’s 380 graduates had a “greater sense of confidence” about job prospects than she has seen in the past few years.

For starters, many of the graduates at the Catholic women’s school – except for the weekend and graduate program – already have jobs or at least internships, Pauley noted.

“A large majority have had at least one internship or more,” she said, giving them work experience, networks and marketability to boost their job search.

Most college counselors advise students to at least prepare for the job search well before they get their caps and gowns, encouraging them to get involved in clubs, organizations, volunteer work and internships, anything they can put on their job applications.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 90 percent of employers prefer candidates with work experience – gained primarily through internships.

As DePaul’s Steele put it: “For the class of 2011, internships are the new entry-level jobs.”