RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Graduation day is a time for celebration and apprehension, because it's a time to find a job. And the last five years have been a very tough time for both high school and college grads entering the workforce.
This year, there is some cause for optimism. Andrew Schneider of member station KUHF in Houston reports.
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ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: There's little room to spare in the garage of A.C. Collins Ford in Pasadena, Texas. The bays are filled with cars and SUVs in varying states of repair. It's a busy day for Adan Alanis.
Three years ago, Alanis was a high school senior. Those graduating that year faced the worst job market in decades. But there was still a demand for workers with strong technical skills, and Alanis was acing his classes in automotive technology when recruiters came to visit.
ADAN ALANIS: The manager here and a few other managers from different dealerships came by and they interviewed all of us, and they only hired me and one other guy, because we were always on top of our studies, and we always had the highest grades in class.
SCHNEIDER: Fast-forward to 2013. Alanis has seen the market for skilled workers take off since he graduated from high school. But even in his short career, the skills demanded by the automotive industry have grown more complex.
ALANIS: Everything's getting more electronic, and I've been into electronics, too.
SCHNEIDER: To keep current, Alanis is again a new graduate. He's just earned his associate's degree from nearby San Jacinto College. If he was a standout high school grad three years ago, Alanis - with his even-sharper skills now - is a more typical success story among this year's graduates.
John Challenger is CEO of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.
JOHN CHALLENGER: It helps to have a hard skill that is immediately useful to a company. So technologists and engineering grads can bring that.
ALANIS: That's especially true for Houston. The region is experiencing an economic boom. That's tied to the rapid growth of the energy industry, but it's spilling over to manufacturing, construction and many other sectors. Jobs in those sectors demand ever-higher levels of technical expertise, but the rewards are equally high.
SCHNEIDER: Jamie Belinne is assistant dean for career services at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business.
JAMIE BELINNE: At both the graduate and the undergraduate level, we're seeing higher salaries. We're seeing earlier offers, and we're seeing better acceptance rates than we've seen in quite some time.
SCHNEIDER: But what about graduates who don't have a technical background? Belinne says there are more opportunities for them, as well, but they still need an edge.
BELINNE: If you're not going to have a technical skill set, you need to have a very strong communications skill set.
SCHNEIDER: That ability to communicate made all the difference for Katylyn Degner, who just graduated from the University of Houston with a major in anthropology. She tried to capitalize on her communications skills, applying for jobs in advertising, human resources and the non-profit sector.
KATYLYN DEGNER: The job I ended up getting actually had nothing to do with any of the ones that I'd been looking for, but it ended up being a real blessing.
SCHNEIDER: Degner ultimately landed a job in the scheduling department of a Houston-based water filtration company, DePure International. Her ability to help the company clearly communicate with its customers was her ticket to success.
Not everyone is faring as well as Degner. J.C. Gage is an Iraq War veteran and a newly minted graduate of the University of Houston with a degree in public relations. He just started an internship with a PR firm, along with a part-time job on the Houston Chronicle's sports page. So far, a full-time job has eluded him.
J. C. GARE: I'm working nine to four, Monday through Thursday, and then I'm working four nights a week at the Chronicle, from six to midnight. So my sleep and full-time job search is postponed until the weekend, pretty much.
SCHNEIDER: It'll be a while before the jobs numbers for the class of 2013 come in. But a study recently released by the Economic Policy Institute may provide a preview. The report found that last year, both the unemployment and underemployment rates for workers under 25 were double the national averages.
For NPR News, I'm Andrew Schneider, in Houston.
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