Three job wishes? Try again

For the graduating class of 2000, finding a job isn't the hard part. It's sifting through all the offers.

Take Ryan Miller.

The electrical engineering major at the University of Texas, Austin, had 10 job offers. (No that's not a typo.)

In fact, she says she could have had more, but she cancelled a handful of others. "I basically got tired of interviewing," Ms. Miller concedes. "It can be a full-time job."

In the end, she accepted a position with IBM Corp., where she interned. (Big Blue actually made her five different offers.) Starting salary: in the $50,000-range, plus a signing bonus and a full relocation package.

Was she surprised? Not really: "I had a lot of friends graduate the year before. I saw how heavily they were recruited," she says, "and anticipated the same thing."

She's not alone.

For the fourth year running, the tightest labor market in 30 years has elevated new college graduates to near-celebrity status.

Recruiters are handing out job offers - and car keys - in droves. Demand is high whether your major is computer science or psychology. And signing bonuses are a given.

"It's a crazy market," says Pam Webster, a senior recruiting executive in southern California for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. "I've been recruiting with Enterprise for 11 years, and I've never seen anything like it."

No doubt she's been working overtime. The St. Louis-based company plans to hire 6,000 new employees this year for its management-training program - most of whom will come from the Class of 2000.

To stand out in the crowd, Enterprise sponsored a contest for the most creative rsum. Grand prize: $5,000. The promotion paid off as hundreds of rsums poured in.

Indeed, companies are showing students the money. Average starting salaries for computer-science graduates rose 6.4 percent over last year to $48,468, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in Bethlehem, Pa.

And it's not just those with technical degrees who are reaping the rewards of a tight labor market. Salaries for liberal arts majors have risen 5.2 percent to $29,105.

Andersen Consulting, which plans to hire 2,500 new graduates, is offering between $35,000 and $50,000 (depending on the degree) to its entry-level hires. About half will get signing bonuses, which can go as high as $5,000. "We've had to compete head to head on compensation," says David Reed, a director of recruiting for Andersen Consulting. "That is just to be in the game - that is not to lead the pack."

Leading the pack have been Internet start-ups, which have beaten a path to universities recently. For example, three graduates from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena each received salary offers of $100,000 from different Internet firms.

And cash isn't always the biggest incentive. "Dotcoms are offering a lot of stock options and that's real attractive to students right now," says Nancy Evans, director of recruiting at the engineering school at the University of Texas, Austin.

Andersen Consulting has answered with its own version of stock options dubbed eUnits. The company plans to invest $200 million in e-commerce ventures this year on behalf of employees and add $100 million to the fund each year thereafter.

Consultants will receive a stake in that investment in the form of eUnits - the size being based on employees' tenure and performance.

The firm has also shaved three years off the amount of time top performers can reach the partner level. By the end of this year, the company plans to add 1,000 new partners, Mr. Reed says.

The choices can be rather overwhelming for the average college student. Many admit that companies can be intense, to say the least. "Students have people in their face all the time," says Kathy Sims, director of career services at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Some recruiters have extended "exploding offers," giving candidates only 24 hours to decide. Electrical engineering major Ms. Miller says one company sent her champagne and chocolate after making her an offer. Another had a real-estate agent waiting to meet her when she arrived at corporate headquarters to "show her around."

While money and perks are nice, students say what they want is a good opportunity - after all they're trading years of spring breaks for a cubicle and fluorescent lights. And recruit-ers say today's grads are sophisticated career consumers.

"We just had a focus group with students, and they still aren't selecting their job by the salary but by the job description," says Ms. Evans at the University of Texas, Austin.

Miller, who will be testing computer chips at IBM's Fishkill, N.Y., plant, was impressed with the company's leadership track.

"I want to go into a leadership position," she says. "I thought they fostered that very well, especially for women."

"I'd also like to go to Columbia to get my MBA. IBM pays for that," she adds.

Companies say that despite the competition, they won't hire just anybody - they want a return on their investment. "We hear companies say, 'If we have to fill our positions by dropping our standards, we'll leave those positions open,' " says Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

But that doesn't mean companies will stop searching for the right candidate. "We're still getting calls from employers wanting to come in for on-campus interviews," says Ms. Evans. "I would say that we'll be getting calls all summer."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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