ST. LOUIS — With a picture-perfect economy before them and the winds of technological change whipping their mortarboards, the class of '99 is entering the new millennium with justified optimism.
Even for French majors, the question du jour is no longer: Can I get a job? It's: What job should I pick?
But success does not seem to have spoiled the ambition of the last graduating class of the 1900s. It's simply laid before them unprecedented opportunity. "I wouldn't call it cocky or arrogant per se but a reasonable self-assurance," says Wayne Wallace, director of the career resource center at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "They've been told year after year after year: 'With that background, you're going to be just fine.' And so far, it's been true."
"There are lots of neat options out there," adds Cynthia Martin, a career counselor at Washington University in St. Louis. Offers are coming so thick and fast students can afford to be choosy. They're deciding between not-for-profit work and high-paying consulting jobs, she says. One graduating senior deferred his acceptance to Harvard Law School to take a paralegal internship in Moscow.
The best job offer to come Matt Pereira's way is a $50,000 marketing job in the San Francisco area. But Mr. Pereira, who graduated six days ago from Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., turned it down. "I've pretty much had enough of all the congestion and traffic and smog" of the Bay Area, he says.
Instead he's interviewing with two brokerage firms farther north in Eureka, Calif. Starting salary: $25,000 to $30,000 a year.
Some college placement experts note a different emphasis among today's graduates. "They're looking for more balance," says Philip Gardner, director of research for the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. "They're saying they're not going to work these 80-hour weeks that their parents did - even the engineers." A record number of Humboldt State seniors, 50, won Peace Corps nominations this year.
But students remain practical. A San Francisco State University survey this spring found nearly 60 percent were attending college to get a job or career. And the siren song of prosperity has not lured droves of graduating seniors to particularly risky ventures, such as starting a company or signing on with a startup firm.
"99.9 percent ... still want the structure" of a regular job, says Dr. Wallace of the University of Florida. "They still have student loans to pay off.... They're not all going to be Bill Gates - at least, not tomorrow."
And, despite the good times, the benefits they're negotiating for are the same ones that top the list every year, such as health insurance and a retirement package, says Camille Luckenbaugh, employment information manager at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in Bethlehem, Pa. "It's a misconception that [new graduates] want to take their pet to work."
One big change is the way students are finding work. The Internet is in; the paper rsum and the on-campus recruitment interview are on the way out.
"Every time I went online and looked at the newspaper, I found three to four jobs that I was qualified for," says Kristen Vecellio, a journalism major who graduated from the University of Florida May 1. After only three job interviews, she got hired. Nine days after graduation, she had moved to an apartment in Clearwater, Fla., and started work for a local publishing company.
Internet job-searching is so popular with students, it's changing the way college-placement centers operate, says Robert Barzan, career counselor at San Francisco State. The university has cut its career-counseling staff in half and created a Web site that allows students to e-mail rsums directly to employers.
A survey by SBC Internet Services found that 4 out of 5 graduates are using the Internet this year to find jobs and employment information; 2 out of 3 will e-mail a rsum to employers.
Online methods were so successful this year - and so many companies were chasing so few graduates - that 40 percent of the companies who scheduled on-campus recruiting sessions at San Francisco State had to cancel them, Mr. Barzan says. Too few students showed up. Next year, he plans to discourage companies from setting up any at all.
"If companies wait to get seniors in the spring of their senior year, they've missed the best candidates," he says. Instead, an increasing number of firms are dangling internships and work- study programs in front of juniors and seniors with the hope that they'll sign on full-time once they graduate. One major retailer even plans to start targeting sophomores beginning next fall, Barzan says.
All the competition to hire students has pushed up starting salaries again this year. While hiring this spring has fallen somewhat from last year's torrid pace, most students can expect their salaries to outpace the starting pay of last year's graduates by at least 3 to 5 percent, says Mr. Gardner of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute.
And students with some specialty majors are doing even better. Chemical engineers, for example, are now averaging $47,705 in pay, 5.8 percent higher than last September, according to NACE (see table).
"I don't think we've seen an economy sustained for such a period," Gardner says. "We're sitting in a very good time."
Starting salaries for the class of 1999
Percent increase Average Major since Sept. 1998 salary
Chemical eng. 5.8% $47,705
Computer science 8.6 45,562
Economics/finance 5.9 35,668
Business admin. 8.6 34,152
English 7.5 28,272
Psychology 5.0 26,966
Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers