RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of Americans applying for unemployment aid fell below 500,000.
Last week, 498,000 Americans filed, a more than 15% drop from 590,000 the week prior.
"It seems that anyone who had hit the pause button in 2020 hit the resume button in 2021. So I think part of it is all of these companies are trying to play catch up. There was already a tight candidate market and now it's even more so, because you have more competition out there that's looking for the same types of people," said Lauren Kesterson, president of MRI Network Management Recruiters of Raleigh.
Kesterson said the construction industry, which they often work with, has been feeling the shortage of available applicants.
"It's tough trying to find people coming in to fill those roles, especially in the Triangle. I mean this area is growing as always, but right now it's like a lever has switched and it's a hot market," Kesterson said.
Restaurateurs have also noted difficulties, as they try to balance staffing shortages with plans to fully reopen once capacity limits are removed at the beginning of June.
Thursday, ABC11 spoke with graduating seniors at Triangle universities, who provided insight into their job application process.
"I have a couple of doors opening and opportunities that I'm really excited about. I've also turned down a couple of positions," said Mia Powell, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Powell has spent her senior year learning remotely in Charlotte and acknowledges she was concerned this time last year about being able to find employment.
"I'm realizing with what I bring to the table, I should be able to craft and create the career that I want to live and make sure it aligns with me as well. So to know my worth or to have a better understanding of my worth and what I have to offer to potential employers and be able to communicate that to them, I think that gives me a lot more autonomy," said Powell, who hopes to land a job in the health industry working with underserved communities.
Fellow Tar Heel Tamiya Troy, who serves as senior class Vice President and President of the Black Student Movement, has accepted a legal analyst position for a Triangle company. She said the pandemic altered what she was looking for in a job.
"I had always told myself that after graduation I would likely move away from North Carolina. And like you said I think the pandemic changed that because, for me, I'm taking into consideration what's it going to look like moving into a new place without my family nearby, thinking about cost of living and those sorts of things as well. I didn't want to add any extra stress onto myself than I had to. So having job options in RTP, it made me feel a little bit more comfortable to stay," Troy said.
She, along with other students, noted companies highlighted the potential ability to work remotely as a perk.
"Something that actually made me really excited about choosing this employer is that during the interview process, they emphasized that they are in no hurry to put us back in the office. So I think for me, it felt like they were putting my safety first," said Troy.
Over at NC Central, Hollan Strepay has a job lined up with Amazon, after interning with the e-commerce giant last summer.
"Because I work in technology that the job opportunities we can work remotely. And really what gave an opportunity to stay with Amazon and now have full-time employment with Amazon upon graduation," said Strepay.
The pandemic forced many companies to switch to remote work, and while offices have slowly reopened, Strepay noted the shift has likely played a role in expanding access to jobs.
"The jobs that may have been designated for certain locations are now opening up as companies become more aware that we need to get talent from different places, and we're also able to do that now. So a lot of companies I see are investing into technologies and initiatives to get employees that may not just be in the locations," Strepay said.
At NC State, which has the largest enrollment of any university in the state, on-campus hiring events were nixed due to the pandemic, but a virtual job fair received overwhelmingly positive feedback.
"I used the career fair a lot to help me just because it was hard to reach out to companies because you couldn't tell if the company had a hold on hiring," said senior Courtney King, who has already secured employment.
"You have to sign up ahead of time to meet with an employer, (compared) to an in-person career fair, you can just show up the day-of and walk around, talk to who you wanted to talk to. But in the virtual space, at least in the way we ran our fairs, the student had to do quite a bit of preparation before the career fair," said Kelly Laraway, who serves at NC State's Director of Employer Relations.
Laraway noted they have 30% more job openings listed compared to this time period last year.
"It's like the buyers market in that sense where they can really decide what type of role they want to take and with what company. And the companies are having to work really hard to attract that talent," said Laraway.
Companies are now working to find ways to attract applicants.
"We're seeing at least in the conversations I'm having with employers, they're asking about starting salary, (asking) 'Am I coming in at the average? What are students getting?' Because I think they're getting a little concerned that they're not getting the applicant pool that they're expecting, so they're really re-looking at their job description and how much their starting salary is for our graduates," Laraway said.
Employers in the US added nearly 770,000 jobs in March, the highest jump since August 2020. April's jobs report is set to be released Friday, with analysts expecting a similar gain. Despite recent progress, unemployment claims are still more than double pre-pandemic levels.