Cover Story: Here's Your Diploma; Here's Your Job

So Many Choices ...

It starts to sounds like a broken record - the best job market in a quarter century, starting salaries that look like a misprint, signing bonuses, the opportunity to do challenging work right out of the starting blocks.

College grads will step off the podium this spring -just as they did last spring - into a job market that is magna cum laude, the best in 28 years. Many, especially those with technology skills, can pick from multiple job offers at salaries that make parents start sentences with "Why, when I was your age...": $30,000, $40,000, and up.

The tight job market wants to snap up as much skilled talent as possible, but there's not enough of it to go around. The number of graduates coming out of colleges and universities has started to decline. It looks temporary, but it also looks like a trend through the year 2000.

This spring's job market for college graduates looks like another one for the history books, the best in 27 years.

Just ask Michael Daher, a senior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. No less than five companies came knocking on his door, competing to be his career choice.

They offered the marketing major salaries from the mid-$30,000s to the mid-$40s.

Plus a signing bonus.

So he signed - for a consulting job in the Cleveland office of accounting giant Deloitte & Touche.

"It's an exciting job market," he says. "I got to be nice and choosy." The company even antes up the tuition for an MBA if he stays for two years.

Then there's Anteneh Zewde, a senior at the University of Cincinnati. He selected from a menu of seven offers, finally settling on an engineering job at E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. for $47,000 a year.

In its annual study of the college job outlook, the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University finds the best prospects ever, says Patrick Scheetz, the institute's chairman.

The reasons? Simple economics: supply and demand. America's strong economy needs as much talent as its colleges can deliver.

But they're not delivering; 1996 brought a lull in the number of graduates, and experts see it continuing through 2000 (see chart, right).

"What makes this a phenomenal year is how widespread the job offers are," says Britt Beemer, president of America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C.

The booming economy kept 128 million people working last year, and the unemployment rate currently sits at a 28-year low, 4.3 percent.

Employers responding to this year's Michigan State study anticipated the greatest hiring increase since the study began in the early 1970s.

Many of these new jobs take aim at graduating college seniors, because they cost employers less than experienced workers, says Mr. Beemer. Even so, tight competition has raised the cost of these entry-level jobs.

Some employers come to the negotiating table with signing bonuses ranging from $1,500 to as much as $20,000 in exceptional cases.

Robert Land, a senior at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., jumped on a job offer last November when IBM came recruiting.

Big Blue offered Mr. Land, a biology major with a minor in computers, a mid-$40s salary, a signing bonus, and tuition for graduate studies.

"They were very flexible in terms of start times and conditions," he says.

Students who major in computer science, engineering, business management, and health care generate the most offers - and the highest starting salaries ever: an average of $44,557 for chemical engineers and $38,741 for computer-science majors.

Three times as many technical jobs await graduates as there are students to fill them, Beemer says.

And more nontechnical companies require technical experts, adds Camille Luckenbaugh, of the National Association for Colleges and Employers. Meanwhile, the number of computer-science graduates has dropped 43 percent since 1988-89.

When companies can't find enough computer science and engineering graduates, some of those jobs "trickle down" to nontechnical and liberal arts majors, says Ms. Luckenbaugh.

Companies turn first to students with minors in technical subjects, then to those with a certificate or some applicable experience, then to graduates with motivation and aptitude.

"Liberal arts colleges are reporting many more recruiters and students getting multiple job offers" this year, says Luckenbaugh.

"The outlook for people in business school or with a financial-management background is getting better and better," Beemer agrees.

Christine Sobiech, a senior at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., took an entry-level auditing position with Big Six accounting firm Deloitte & Touche for $35,500 a year when they came recruiting on campus.

She plans a trip to Europe over the summer before starting her new job in September.

Ms. Sobiech had two job offers, with similar salary ranges, from big accounting firms. She chose Deloitte & Touche because its culture seemed the best match for her.

One of the keys to landing a job quickly is career-related work experience, Dr. Scheetz says. Employers see a "direct correlation between the amount of work experience students have and their success on the job."

Anderson Huang interned for two summers at Metropolitan Life Insurance in Boston. The internship experience was important to landing a job at BankBoston Corp., which pays less but offers more advancement potential.

After a year and a half in BankBoston's capital asset management department, the company will send Mr. Huang back to school for an MBA.

big deal: Robert Land of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., got a career boost when Big Blue offered a job.

* Douglas Healey/special to the christian science monitor

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