WITH college graduation less than a month away, the topic on many students' minds is the job market.
The good news for the class of 1996 is that hiring is up slightly for the third straight year and so are salaries. But in today's lean and mean corporate culture, where the push is to do more with less, employers still have the upper hand. The proof is in several trends emerging on the hiring landscape:
*Employers are more seriously scrutinizing the skills of new grads.
*Internships are often a prerequisite to landing an interview.
*Some firms are starting to hire graduates on a contract basis.
"Employers are generally looking at a few more new college grads than they hired a year ago," says Patrick Scheetz, director of Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute in East Lansing. "But they're not aggressively hiring larger numbers at all. They're pretty much following the economy."
Hiring will be up 4.7 percent for new graduates, according to the institute's annual survey, and starting salaries are expected to jump as much as 3 percent. Still, the job market is far from returned to the days of robust hiring back in 1988.
But many schools have seen more employers visiting campus this year. The rise, they say, stems from small to mid-sized companies, not Fortune 500 heavyweights.
On-campus recruiting at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, for example, is up 10 to 15 percent this year, says Larry Simpson, director of career planning. He attributes the increase to smaller firms that aren't household names.
To many students, however, a name still means a lot, career counselors say, so students tend to shy away from the smaller firms.
Computer science, business management, accounting, and health care continue to be hot job markets, while the social sciences, such as communications and psychology, are more competitive.
Melissa Chin, for example, a senior at Boston University, decided to major in accounting because it was "practical." Four years later, it's paid off: She has several job offers.
"There does seem to be better [job] availability in accounting than other areas," says Ms. Chin, swinging her backpack over her shoulder.
Still, no one can be too confident, career counselors warn. Companies are really scrutinizing who they hire. Most employers now prescreen candidates to identify students who have the desired skills for the job. And more firms are doing behavioral-based interviewing, where students cannot simply say they are a good communicator but must give a concrete example.
"Employers are looking to validate the [students'] skills to increase the odds of a better hire and less attrition," says Wayne Wallace, director of the Career Resource Center at the University of Florida, Gainesville, where on-campus recruiting has doubled this spring.
What are employers looking for?
"Employers want it all," says Janet Kendall, a career counselor at Boston University. "High GPA [grade point average], related work experience, involvement in extracurricular activities, and good communication skills."
But there's one element seen by more recruiters as a prerequisite: the internship. Some companies nix potential interviews on that point alone. And many firms' new hires come from their pools of interns.
"We seldom interview candidates who haven't had a co-op or internship," says Dave Berlien, manager of college relations and recruitment for E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., based in Wilmington, Del.
Because only about 1 to 2 percent of all employers recruit on college campuses, an internship becomes even more valuable, says Mr. Wallace of the University of Florida.
Boston University senior David Leonardo certainly knows the value of an internship. To college career counselors, he's a dream come true: majors in finance and information systems with a minor in political science; varsity wrestling captain; a 3.3 GPA; and four internships, including one with investment firm Merrill Lynch.
His internships, he says, give him a foot in the door. "You know people, and you have company experience," says Mr. Leonardo, polishing off a lunch in the student union while scanning The Wall Street Journal. Employers know that "you're not a chump from college who doesn't know how to dress or act."
Though Leonardo officially graduates in May, he has to return to school in the fall because of a wrestling commitment. So this summer he's "out to prove myself." What's he doing? Interning. He has three offers: from AT&T Corp., Bank of Boston, and investment house Goldman Sachs, which will pay him $650 to $700 a week plus a free dinner and a ride home if he works after dark.
At the same time, more employers are hiring new graduates on a temporary basis rather than putting them on the payroll. In 1992, companies hired 1.2 percent of new college grads on a contract basis, according to Dr. Scheetz. That number jumped to 4.2 percent in 1995 and will likely rise this year.
Still, career counselors say more students are delaying looking for a job. Many, like Jeffrey Rush, a Boston University senior on a swimming scholarship, say they are too busy. "Due to my academic work load, I have not been able to be as persistent with my job search," he says. A political science major, Mr. Rush has had interviews, but no offers.