Economics major Zachary Hanson graduates this month from the University of Minnesota. But he's not sweating a job search -- he's had a job offer since October.

"I'm incredibly happy where I am," said Hanson, who majored in political science and economics.

He'll be making $55,000 a year crunching numbers and analyzing data for the federal government. He moves to Virginia in a few weeks. Hanson's rapid journey from student to employee signals improvement in job prospects for the class of 2012.

In March, Augsburg College graduate Andrew Andersen was pleasantly surprised when he was offered a job the same week he interviewed with Schaefer Ventilation in Sauk Rapids, Minn.

"I was kind of shocked," said Andersen, a double major in marketing and management. "It was great. It never really happened like that before."

Andersen is a 2011 graduate who became a product support specialist at Schaefer after finishing an internship at another company. His job search this spring was much better than in 2011.

Andersen's new boss, Neil Crocker, isn't surprised. As president of Schaefer Ventilation, he sees the labor market changing.

"You can't believe how fast it can go from a worker glut to a worker shortage," Crocker said.

Datacard Group, the Minnetonka manufacturer of machines that make credit cards, passports and secure ID cards, recently ramped up its graduate recruiting with formal programs at the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas.

"Now this is part of our recruiting strategy," said Russell St. John, senior vice president of global marketing, noting that this is the second year of Datacard's big campus outreach.

The recovering labor market can be seen on the state's online jobs site, called In February 2011, employers posted 29,145 job openings. A year later there were 43,500. Today, just three months later, there are 49,514 job openings.

The trend is nationwide. Last week, the U.S. Labor Department reported that job openings rose to their highest level since 2008, hitting 3.74 million in March, up from 3.57 million in February.

If a hiring rebound sounds familiar, that's because it is. A year ago, economists predicted an employment boom, but then the U.S. debt crisis and worries over Europe's fiscal implosion tempered companies' hiring enthusiasm in the second half of the year. A temporary internship was the most many companies would offer.

Lost generation

But even that was better than the struggles faced by those who graduated in 2008 and 2009 amid layoffs and corporate hiring freezes courtesy of the nation's longest and deepest recession since World War II.

The problem was so dire in 2009, some economists dubbed those grads the "lost generation," forced to take jobs as waiters, coffee baristas and retail clerks instead of marketers, accountants or software developers.

But finally, that appears to be changing.

According to a March survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), companies expect to hire 29,237 graduates this year, up 10.2 percent from 2011. Internship offerings are up 8.2 percent from a year ago. Job postings are triple what they were in 2010. The median starting salary for the class of 2012 jumped 4.5 percent to $42,569 from a year ago, the association reported.

"The job market for new college graduates is improving steadily," said Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the association.

For example, communication majors are getting salary offers 3.8 percent higher than a year ago and education majors saw a 4.5 percent jump to $37,423. Meanwhile, salaries offered to computer science and science majors rose 2 percentto $56,400 and $40,939, respectively.

At Schaefer Ventilation, Andersen said he's thrilled to be in a permanent spot that pays more than $30,000 a year.

Hunter Moen was offered an electrical engineering job at Datacard in October of his senior year at the University of Minnesota. Four engineering buddies also landed job offers before moving the tassel on their graduation cap from the right to the left. Each is making close to the industry starting salary of $50,000 a year.

"The number of jobs and internships that have been posted to our website is back to the same number we had pre-recession," said Jennifer Rogers, the employer relations specialist at the University of St. Thomas' Career Development Center.

She said the employers she invites to campus are hungry for job candidates now -- a big difference from 2009, when she was canceling entire recruiting events. Today Rogers said she has 1,100 job postings. "In the bowels of the recession we were hovering near 450 or 500," she said. There's demand for marketing and sales people, IT and software developers, engineers and accounting and finance grads.

"These are leading us out of the recession," Rogers said.

Paul Timmins, career services director for the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts, said he's also seen increased interest from employers at his school, where 212 corporations attended the annual career fair in February. That's up from 181 in 2010, but below the 253 in 2008.

"We are rebuilding," Timmins said. The number of companies asking to interview students at the career services office has also increased. But it's not a slam dunk.

"I was really hoping to be employed before I graduated," said Bridget Boll, a political science major whose commencement was Sunday at the U. She interns in a Delano law office, worked with the U's career services office, and interviewed with Target, Edward Jones and four others. She got callbacks from five of them. But so far, no job offer.

On May 1, she met with adjunct professor and career coach Jesse Holschbach to figure out a better job searching plan.

"Be patient," he told her. "You are on the right track. Stick with what you love and the money will follow."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725