College Pays Off in Hot Job Market

Parents, relax.

Those big bucks you shelled out for college have paid off: Junior's going to get a job.

With everyone from chipmakers to consulting firms in a frantic search to find workers, companies are in hot pursuit of future graduates.

Many firms this year accelerated interviewing schedules and hit college campuses this fall to get their offers out early.

"It's staggering how aggressive companies are," says Kathy Sims, director of career services at the University of California, Los Angeles, where recruiting is up 34 percent this fall over last.

That means more students will spend the holidays mulling over where to work rather than mailing out rsums.

Salaries continue to rise - for all majors. And signing bonuses are as common as dinners at four-star restaurants. Some businesses even offer bonuses to summer interns.

Eileen Wexler, an engineering major at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, already has two offers in hand - one from a top Wall Street firm, the other from a computer giant.

And more will likely follow. Five major competitors will fly her to their headquarters next month - all expenses paid. "I feel like a star football player being recruited," she laughs.

In fact, when she told one company she was too booked to visit, the recruiters flew to her.

But you don't have to be an engineering major (or go to Cal Tech) to fare well in this job market. Overall, hiring will jump 27.5 percent over last year, finds an annual survey by Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute.

That means students not only have a better chance of getting jobs, but of getting ones that require a college degree, says Patrick Scheetz, director of the institute in East Lansing.

And starting pay should rise 4.6 percent - outpacing last year's gain by nearly a full percentage point - predicts the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

To get a jump on the competition, many recruiters started shaking hands earlier than ever.

This fall, 1,000-plus companies descended on the University of Florida, Gainesville - almost double the number last fall. The career center had to rent out the school's athletic arena to hold its fall recruiting fair.

"We came dangerously close to clogging the fire exits," quips Wayne Wallace, director of the school's career resource center.

Recruiters are also coming with many more jobs to offer. A record 30,000 job openings were posted in UCLA's electronic database this fall.

Few companies will hire more college grads this year than Enterprise Rent-A-Car. It's combing campuses for 5,000 management trainees, who will do everything from man the sales desk to wash cars.

To meet its quota, the St. Louis-based company has dispatched 200 recruiters - 50 percent more than last year.

Indeed, fierce competition is pushing firms to get aggressive.

Some companies phone potential hires just hours after interviews and invite them back for a second round. Others are pushing students to respond to offers within days rather than months.

Students almost need an agent

One company told Cal Tech's Ms. Wexler it would match any offer she got. And she receives regular e-mail messages from employees at companies where she's interviewed - telling her what a great company they work for.

Other businesses dangle basketball tickets or on-campus pizza parties.

Then there's the money.

The biggest bucks still go to students with technical degrees. Chemical engineers now start at $44,557, on average.

Yet liberal-arts majors also feel the largess: the biggest increase in starting salaries this year, according to NACE. They're expected to pull down $28,875.

"The salaries companies are offering to top grads have knocked me off my chair," says Maury Hanigan of Hanigan Consulting Group in New York, which designs recruiting strategies.

Some of her clients put $45,000 a year on the table - then add a $5,000 signing bonus, plus a $5,000 annual performance bonus. Last year, only a handful of students saw such figures, she says. "This year, hundreds will get that kind of money."

Even signing bonuses are climbing. (Yes, signing bonuses for college kids.)

"Last year's bonuses were between $1,000 and $3,000," says NACE's Camille Luckenbaugh. "This year, that's the lower end."

It all bodes well for students.

Patrick Sampson, an accounting major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has already sealed a deal with International Paper Co.

It was his first offer - he'd interviewed with 20 other businesses - and he jumped at it. (The company, he concedes, seemed to be in a hurry as well. During his second interview, the recruiter skipped the questions and started quoting dollar figures.)

Everyone gets a job

Besides having a senior mentor, he'll be able to dress casually. And the job pays $34,000 a year plus a $1,500 signing bonus.

Still, computer science and engineering are the degrees to own.

High-tech firms, it seems, can't find enough workers. Cal Tech turned away companies looking for computer-science majors this year because it didn't have enough students.

And more businesses outside of high-tech are bidding for these students. "It's making workers who were already scarce that much more difficult to find," says Mike Foster, recruiting manager at Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif.

Yet the demand for high-tech labor is opening the door for liberal-arts majors, as well. "If you are a liberal-arts major with computer skills, sell that technical expertise," advises Dr. Scheetz.

And with fewer new bachelor's degree candidates expected this and the next three years, recruiters better invest in some good running shoes.

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