Graduating to the big bucks

Bryan Bushman is stunned. Floored. Totally in awe.

Even he never imagined he'd land a job offer like this right out of the starting blocks.

Mr. Bushman, who a senior at the University of Texas, Austin, just hired on with credit card company Capital One - as a recruiter for the technology department.

His annual salary: $36,000 plus a $4,000 signing bonus and three weeks paid vacation.

Funny thing is, he's a psychology major who knows more about the moon than computers.

"It's hilarious," he says, "because at one time, turning on a computer caused me a lot of anxiety."

The class of 1999 is loaded with Bushman-like stories (and plenty of giddy parents).

For the third-year running, the hottest job market in 25 years has elevated new college graduates to celebrity status.

Multiple job offers abound - especially for the computer literate. Starting salaries look like something Hollywood concocted - $30,000 to $40,000. And signing bonuses are a given.

"Students are well aware that they are the buyer," says Mark Chain, national director of recruiting and human-resource management at accounting firm Deloitte & Touche.

The firm plans to hire 2,500 new graduates this year - more than a third of them with signing bonuses from $1,000 to $5,000.

The industries facing worker deficits are still the same: high-tech, engineering, accounting, finance, and health care (despite recent mergers).

Paul Roberts wanted to work for accounting giant Ernst & Young from the beginning - and he got his wish. The University of Southern California business major with a focus in information systems (i.e., computers) will start in the firm's health-care consulting practice developing software packages.

He asked for a salary between $45,000 and $48,000 a year. He got $48,000.

Many firms stormed campuses early this fall, angling for a jump on top picks.

And for good reason when you consider companies like Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which plans to hire 6,300 students nationwide, up from 5,000 last year.

"So many of our employers were so aggressive and so eager to make sure they were getting enough hires that they slammed our campuses very hard in the fall," says Wayne Wallace, director of the career resource center at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

At the University of Massachusetts School of Management in Amherst, one-quarter of the 120 graduates had accepted offers by Thanksgiving.

"Overall, we have more opportunities than students looking for jobs," adds Richard Fein, director of placement at the School of Management.

The fall rush means campuses nationwide find fewer recruiters on their front steps this spring.

That means students who put off their job search until now may not be as fortunate as those at this time last year.

Despite the fact that companies are combing campuses as carefully as Sherlock Holmes, that doesn't mean they plan to hire just any warm body.

"You don't get a job offer after one interview any more," says Eileen Kohan, executive director of the career planning and placement center at USC in Los Angeles. "Companies are more concerned with organizational fit."

Translation: Expect three or four rounds of interviews.

Capital One was more than thorough in testing Bryan Bushman's abilities.

His first interview included a series of rapid-fire questions from a recruiter such as: "Describe a situation where you dealt with ambiguity."

He also took a written test where he had to analyze charts and graphs. "There was no way to finish the test in the allotted amount of time," he recalls.

Two weeks later the company flew him to its Richmond, Va., headquarters for a business dinner, another round of interviews - and one more test.

Despite the dearth of graduates, companies are insisting on such skills as team work, organization, time management, and analytical thinking.

"The demand for those skills is so critical that employers will continue to up the bar," says Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute (CERI) at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "Things are moving so fast that companies can't take the time to teach [these skills]."

Indeed, work experience (such as internships) is quickly becoming a prerequisite for landing an interview.

Students who don't have work experience take longer to find that first job, get a smaller starting salary, and don't get promoted as quickly out of that first position, according to CERI research.

But it also takes a lot of work.

Just because the labor market is booming doesnt mean youll get the job you really want, says Rosa Nguyen, a business major at USC who landed a $40,000- plus job with Arthur Andersen. [Top companies] still hold the students they hire to a high standard.

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