College grads face fewer platinum job offers

Though hiring will still be strong, the weak economy is forcing firms to cut back slots and six-digit salary offers.

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Over the past three years, the class of '01 has watched as graduates received signing bonuses and recruiters flocked to college job fairs with promises of fat salaries.

But today, the company-owned BMWs, the free tickets to Hawaii, and the stock options for new hires are like an ancient history course.

Instead, with many companies paring back their payrolls, college graduates this year will face an unusual task: They'll actually have to compete for jobs.

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"For a whole group of college graduates, it's a rude awakening that the job market is not as good as it has been for the past three years," says Dimitri Boylan, chief executive officer of HotJobs in New York.

Of course, it's not quite a college version of "Survivor," either. According to a survey issued yesterday by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 48 percent of the companies said they would stick to their original hiring plans. The survey also found that companies nationwide still plan to hire 18 percent more college students than last year. But this is down from 24 percent in an earlier survey.

"Yes, there is some cutting back, but it's not drastic cuts from what we are seeing," says Mimi Collins of NACE, based in Bethlehem, Pa.

One reason may be because college graduates, despite the big paychecks of the last few years, are still inexpensive hires. They are often entry-level workers. And many companies, after steep cutbacks in the early 1990s, realize they can't afford to see their names disappear from around the student union.

"Some companies found that when the market heated up again, they didn't have people in the pipeline and they had trouble reestablishing themselves on the campuses," says Ms. Collins.

That may explain why some college placement officers report no downturn in visits. For example, at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., demand remains strong for engineers and architects. "If it were not for the steady flow of dire news in the press about the dismal economy, one could not predict it from the flow of business into our Career Center," says Patrick Lennahan, its director.

And for many students with technical skills, there is still a strong demand, says Donna LoDolce, a division manager for Management Recruiters International in Scottsdale, Ariz. She is currently trying to find students to be sales representatives in the Southwest for a pharmaceutical company at a total compensation of $60,000 a year. "There is a strong competition for these jobs," she says.

However, many career directors report that recruiters may have come armed with less. That's the case at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., where there are fewer offers than the past four years. This has been particularly noticeable in the financial services industry, where such giants as Fidelity and Putnam are cutting back, says Jim Greeley, director of placement. "There is no question, there is a freeze in certain areas," he says.

That cold air has hit senior Scott Franzen, an advertising major at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has just returned from a job-hunting trip to Chicago, where he found the major agencies reluctant to make offers ahead of graduation. "Advertising is different than engineering and accounting. It's more attuned to the rapid fluctuations in the economy," says the Nebraska native.

The economic slowdown has driven many students to seek internships. That's what's happened to Ashley Futrell, a senior at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. She's commuting to Greensboro to do an internship for a small advertising and public-relations firm. If she can't land a full-time job after graduation, she may be able to extend the internship for another three months. But, this means that she will remain on her father's medical benefits. "He tells me all the time, 'Your goal is to get off my payroll,' " she jokes.

Students are also finding that companies have become choosier. Tom Welby, a senior at Merrimack, has been on four job interviews with two more to go. "From what I've seen, there are jobs available, but the qualifications are tighter," says the marketing major. But, "I would expect a job by the beginning of May. It hasn't entered my mind that won't happen," he says.

Some commentators, however, are concerned that students could become very disillusioned. Steve Viscusi, host of a nationally syndicated radio show ("On the Job With Steve Viscusi"), says, "Kids graduating are worried," he says, "and if they aren't worried, they are naive."

The advantage, in fact, is now on the employers' side, says Imad Hammoud, a graduate student in the e-commerce management program at San Jose State University in California. Mr. Hammoud, with two master's degrees in chemistry, received three job offers, including one with a bonus. But the Lebanese-born student says it took a lot of networking and a little good fortune. "Over the last few months, it started to get worse," he says.

It was only a year ago that students at the school were getting fabulous offers of six-figure salaries and trips to Hawaii, says Mitchell Levy, chairman of the e-commerce management program. "Now students are looking for companies with stability - a place where they can ride out the storm."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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