Grads gain the advantage

The lean job market college graduates faced in the first half of the decade is gone, and companies are upping the ante to obtain the best talent.

Stephen Richardson knew what he wanted, waited for it, and got it. The management major from Purdue University in Indiana wasn't tempted to take the first job offer he got last October - something job seekers in a dicier economy might do. He also passed on three other offers.

His patience paid off. After graduating later this month, Mr. Richardson will have his dream job waiting for him.

"I knew what I was capable of, and I was pretty confident that the job market was flourishing at that time," says Richardson, who will start a finance job at Procter & Gamble in June.

It's a buyer's market for many college grads looking for their first jobs this spring. Job-market analysts and career counselors see hiring growth in many sectors of the economy. Nationwide, employers plan to hire 13.8 percent more new graduates than they did last year, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in Bethlehem, Pa.

While grads from the first half of this decade faced a leaner job market, many from the class of 2006 will have their pick of career opportunities.

"I think today the difference is that people coming out of school aren't treating the offers cavalierly like they might have then," says John Challenger of Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "They're more careful to take the right job."

Especially for grads who have gained work experience through internships, 2006 is a good year to graduate, experts say. Students with backgrounds in engineering and financial services are especially in demand this year. At the Colorado School of Mines, 79 percent of its December 2005 graduates had snagged jobs by graduation - its highest rate in 13 years, says Ron Brummett, director of the engineering school's career center. "We're guessing that our May graduates will be higher than that."

Mr. Brummett attributes this bonanza to widespread growth in a number of industries. "We've seen the mining industry come back, and we've begun to see semiconductor companies recruiting again, which we haven't seen in a few years."

Among the 2006 graduates to benefit from that climate: Mikell Taylor, an electrical engineering major at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. She mulled over job offers from two robotics firms and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. before choosing on Bluefin Robotics. The Cambridge, Mass. firm works with navies and research institutions around the world. "I feel so lucky," she says.

Hiring of grads in the Northeast will rise 24.8 percent this year, NACE reports, followed by smaller increases in the South, Midwest, and West. Employers in the service sector and manufacturing report the highest levels of hiring, it says. Government and nonprofit employers plan to increase their hiring of college grads by 9 percent this year.

The rush to hire has led to some fierce competition among employers, with companies again canvassing campuses in search of talent. "With unemployment dropping now down to 4.7 percent nationally, and lower in a lot of markets, a lot of companies are increasingly focusing on recruiting and attracting the right people," says Mr. Challenger of the Chicago outplacement firm. "They're putting it up to the top of their priority list."

Dan Black, who has been a campus recruiter for the professional services firm Ernst & Young for nine years, says the competition for top accounting graduates is heavier this year than he has ever seen. His firm plans to hire 5,380 new grads, a 13 percent jump from last year.

The applicant pool, Mr. Black says, seems to grow more qualified every year - many applicants have impressive internship experience, have traveled widely, and can speak several languages. "If I were looking for a job these days, I'd be nervous about competing against these students," he says.

Like many new graduates in finance-related fields, Boston University students Shirlene Chow and Andrew Ellis had several job offers. Mr. Ellis will work for IBM, while Ms. Chow took a job in audit services for Deloitte & Touche. Experts credit the four-year-old Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which sets tougher accounting standards for corporations, for helping to boost starting salary offers for accounting majors this spring to $45,058, a 5.4 percent jump.

Regardless of industry, almost 90 percent of the companies surveyed by NACE reported more competition over new grads this year, and more than 20 percent said they planned to increase starting salaries to make job offers more attractive.

"In a more competitive environment, companies want to sweeten the pot a little bit," says Stacey Rudnick, director for MBA career services at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. She is seeing more signing bonuses this year than last, with companies putting more on the table to lure top candidates. Consulting firms, for example, are offering an average signing bonus of $25,000 to $30,000 for McCombs MBA graduates this year, compared with $20,000 to $25,000 last year, Ms. Rudnick says.

"That will even filter down to some signing bonus potential for top [undergraduate] performers," says Challenger. Tuition-reimbursement programs appear to be more common this year, too, he adds. "For example, a company might say 'If you stay here for three years after you graduate, we'll finance your MBA.' "

Mostly, though, competition for grads means higher starting salaries. Employers raised starting salary offers for accounting grads by 5.4 percent this year to $46,188, according to a separate survey by NACE. Liberal-arts graduates can expect average starting salaries of $30,958, which is 2 percent higher than last year's.

The increase in opportunities doesn't mean grads can afford to be lazy about the job search, career experts maintain. Although online job searching is a useful tool, job seekers still need to venture out and press the flesh. "In order to actually get the job, you have to use your network," says Pat Garrott, associate director of Purdue University's career center.

Of course, a good job market also doesn't solve the perennial problem of figuring out what one wants to do. "Most people don't even know what they want or what they're looking for," says Lillian Kang, a University of Kansas economics major who graduates later this month. While Ms. Kang will work as a financial adviser at the Highpointe Financial Group in Leawood, Kan., she says she's the only person she knows who already has a job lined up.

"Everything I've worked for has pretty much led up to being a financial adviser," she says.

Experts' job-hunting tips for the Class of '06

1. Don't delay your job search. "Even if you're anticipating taking a little trip after graduation, plant the seeds now," says Richard Wahlquist, president of the American Staffing Association, which represents temp agencies and placement firms across the country. "This is the peak employment season."

2. Build a peer network. Grads should collect contact information from fellow students before getting their diplomas. "That's a fabulous network that they'll have the rest of their lives," says Susan Joyce, editor of Job-Hunt.org.

3. Watch your electronic 'footprint.' Search engines like Google are great, but they also make it easy for potential employers to find "all of those nasty notes on blogs and dumb stuff in online profiles," Ms. Joyce says. "Be very careful with [what you write in an] e-mail, particularly e-mail to large groups - such as e-mail distribution lists for job seekers."

4. Be wary of bogus job sites. People tend to put too much sensitive information on their résumés and then circulate them widely over the Internet, Joyce says. "If a website wants you to register before you see any jobs, run in the other direction."

5. Consider temping or volunteering. If you lack work experience, a consultative visit at a staffing agency can help, says Mr. Wahlquist. "It's free, no obligations, and they have their finger on the pulse of the local job market every day." The fall election presents opportunities to volunteer. "It's a way to meet people and demonstrate what you can do," Joyce says.

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