Beachcombing for junior executives

Corporate recruiters congregate at surf side to woo college students onspring break

- Ah, spring break.

for countless American college students, it's the most coveted week on the calendar. Time to ditch the books, don sandals and sunscreen, and head for the closest sunny spot.

Yet this spring break, students are finding they're not the only ones hitting the beach. Corporate recruiters are following students all the way to the sand, intent on scoping out young talent and gaining an advantage in the Lycra-tight labor market.

"With record [low] levels of unemployment, it's getting harder and harder to find top-tier students," IBM recruiter Marybeth Voss shouted on her cell phone from a recruiting fair last week at Lake Havasu, Ariz. "We're trying to meet students where they are."

Along with scouts from Big Blue, recruiters hitting the boardwalk represent AT&T, State Farm Insurance, America Online, and even the US Secret Service (looking less conspicuous than usual in their Ray-Bans). Hanging up business suits for shorts and sneakers, recruiters are setting up booths and handing out literature at some of the hottest spring-break spots in the country.

Under a 4,000-square-foot tent on the shore of Lake Havasu, some 40 companies hawked everything from company T-shirts to key chains. IBM gave away more than 1,000 miniature lava lamps in four hours.

Indeed, IBM came to play. The firm, which plans to hire as many as 4,000 college graduates in the US this year, brought eight recruiters. One team combed the beach; the other worked the lake on jet skis and wave runners. "This recruiting tactic is not something we would have done 10 years ago, but we're not the company we used to be 10 years ago," Ms. Voss says. "We're here to demonstrate to students that as a company we know how to have fun."

Spring-break recruiting started in earnest about four years ago, with just a handful of firms. Now, it seems, students have come to expect it.

When IBM went to Daytona Beach, Fla., earlier this month, it received 200 rsums from spring breakers. And recruiters for Lucent Technologies Inc., based in Murray Hill, N.J., spotted a few students in suits.

Yet companies acknowledge that it's less about interviewing candidates on the spot and more about spreading the word that they're hiring - or trying to change their stodgy image.

"I doubt there are many companies who believe that speaking to someone in a nylon swimsuit is going to lead to a job offer," says AT&T spokesman Burke Stinson. "The effort is as much positioning for the company as it is recruiting."

The telecommunications giant hit spring-break job fairs this year at Panama City Beach, Fla., Lake Havasu, Ariz., and South Padre Island, Texas.

"We consider this a success if students ... go back to school and look us up online and submit a rsum," adds IBM spokeswoman Cindy Greeno.

THAT'S what happened last year. One week after IBM showed up at a job fair in Panama City Beach during spring break, the number of rsums college students submitted online increased 58 percent from the same week the year before, when the company didn't recruit at the beach.

Yet some say students may get the wrong idea about a company.

"What impression will a company give students if the corporate recruiter is dressed in beach attire and talking seriously about a job," says John Challenger of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago. "Will they think the company culture is T-shirts and cut-offs when it is really traditional office attire?"

A bigger concern, however, is that spring break is known for unbridled revelry in which the accepted dress code is a bikini. Many say this is the wrong setting to discuss job prospects.

Yet recruiters say students have been tame during the day, when the job events are held.

"Between noon and 6 p.m. on the beach, the students seem to be fairly straight and fairly serious," says AT&T's Mr. Stinson.

As long as the labor market keeps hovering at record lows, many say, companies will continue to flock to the beach like the swallows to San Juan Capistrano.

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