Hamza Afzal had such a hard time finding an electrical engineering internship in the recession that he delayed his graduation, took pre-med classes and applied to law school. This year, he got two job offers in his field.
"I definitely saw a shift in the job market," said Afzal, a 24-year-old senior at San Jose State University, who will start May 30 at chipmaker Linear Technology Corp. in nearby Milpitas, Calif.
The turnaround is being driven by gains in finance, energy and technology, said Edwin Koc, who heads research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Companies are filling a backlog of jobs after two years of stagnant hiring and looking to younger workers to fill vacancies, he said. This year, 1.61 million students are expected to graduate, he said.
Job creation is booming in Silicon Valley.
"It's quite a stunning comeback," said Lance Choy, director of the career development center at Stanford University "Over the past couple of years there's been a lot of anxiety. It's been a bleak time for students. We've come back from quite a dip."
Postings at Stanford's online job board for full-time positions surged 36 percent to 1,900 in the fourth quarter of last year compared with a year earlier, Choy said. Internship postings climbed 31 percent.
Emerging areas of technology like social media, mobile applications and e-commerce are fueling rapid hiring at large companies like Google and Apple as well as at hundreds of venture capital-backed start-ups.
Increasingly, students are finding that internships can lead to full-time jobs as companies use them to audition potential employees, Allmen-Vinnedge said.
"Employers want to recruit once and hire twice," she said.
Robert Fischer, 22, a San Jose State senior, spent three years interning at Google and will start a full-time position after graduating in May.
"I look at an internship as sort of an extended interview," said Fischer. "I showed them how hard I was willing to work and the things I could do. I think that helped."
Zynga, the biggest maker of online games on Facebook, is hiring about 130 college graduates this year, 35 percent more than last year, said Dani Dudeck, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco company.
Facebook is "aggressively hiring the best talent we can in the quickest manner possible," said Adam Ward, a recruiting manager.
That kind of hiring is a switch from the past few years, when the recession crimped hiring of new graduates by the biggest consulting firms and investment banks. Students were forced to work harder at networking and contacting alumni, said Stanford's Choy.
"There's a lot of frustration," he said. "They wondered, 'Gee, all this education, what is it worth?' "
The hiring climate is also improving outside Silicon Valley. Schools from New York University to Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., say opportunities this year for graduating students have increased, and that the recruiting process began earlier than in past years.
Danielle Even, 22, an NYU senior with a double major in finance and economics, accepted a job offer last August. The Brooklyn native interned during the summer at Evercore Partners and was offered a full-time position at the investment bank that starts in June.
"I was able to sign and really not have to worry about searching for a job throughout my whole senior year," Even said.
The frenzy to hire business and engineering students makes it a great opportunity for job seekers, who can gain valuable experience being part of a startup, said Baba Shiv, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business who studies human behavior.
"For students, it's the perfect time to take chances," he said. "Do it now. In five years, it will be over."