Job prospects good for college grads in US

The hiring frenzy for graduating college students during the late 1990s has not returned, but it's getting close, analysts say.

As graduating college students move in with their parents or occupy a friend's couch while they search for jobs, hosts of these transients will be relieved to hear that by all measures it should be a relatively short job hunt.

A steadily improving job market indicates that most graduates will have little problem finding a job that will elevate them from the ranks of student to young professional.

Based on statistics from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the future looks bright for college grads this year. At least 17.4 percent more jobs await the class of 2007 than last year's class. Even better, 26 of 29 undergraduate majors surveyed by NACE reported larger starting salary offers.

Among grads both new and old, a university degree seems to be a virtual employment guarantee. As of March, people with a bachelor's degree or higher experienced a 1.8 percent unemployment rate compared with a national average of 4.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"It is a favorable market for the new college graduates," says Brett Good, district president for southern California and Arizona at Robert Half International, a staffing company.

The abundance of job opportunities reflects the continued improvement of the economy since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. While the market for entry-level positions has yet to match the hiring frenzies seen during the late 1990s, analysts say it's getting close. "Every year since 2002, things got a little bit better, and then there was a significant improvement in 2005-06, and we've continued to improve at a very solid level," says Richard White, director of career services at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

In addition, companies have begun taking steps to fill the impending void created when baby boomers, who account for 45 percent of the workforce, begin retiring. "It's getting enough coverage that organizations are taking it seriously and saying how do we work with what will become a very problematic supply-and-demand issue," says Mr. Good.

All of this means that it's a good time to be graduating from college. But for those with specialized degrees, it's an even better time. Starting salaries for business or technical majors have grown the most. Marketing graduates, for example, saw their average initial salary offer increase by 10.3 percent this year, according to NACE. Salaries offered to liberal arts grads on the other hand increased on average by only 1.3 percent in 2006.

Charlie Smith, a film major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says most of his friends with economics or business degrees have already lined up jobs for next year, while he and his friends in the liberal arts are still struggling to find something.

"Of everybody I know who has already graduated, there's nobody who hit the ground running," says Mr. Smith. "It's not because anybody's stupid or they don't have any talent. It's just impossible to hit the ground running unless you're an accountant."

Christopher Bayerle, an art history major at Birmingham Southern College in Alabama who graduates this spring, worries that only grads from top universities or with advanced degrees will stand out in today's job market. "Even if we have more jobs [in the US] each day, there are so many colleges in this country, and so many people are going to college," he says.

Still, there may be a number of opportunities for grads like Smith and Mr. Bayerle, as a number of employers see value in a broad range of studies. Of 150 senior executives recently surveyed by the staffing organization Accountemps, 21 percent said that to prepare for future business success they would study the liberal arts, up from 14 percent in 1996. Liberal arts came in second only to business administration, which gained 39 percent of the votes, but beat both accounting and law. "[The liberal arts] really stress critical thinking and analysis, which is a skill set that's important for a number of organizations," says Good.

Though many ac­­counting and economics majors land jobs early, only 30 to 40 percent of students have secured a job by commencement, estimates Dr. White at Rutgers. But six months after graduation, at least 75 percent of graduates will have jobs and another 20 percent will have moved on to graduate school.

Regardless of a student's major, internships offer one surefire path to a job. Sixty-four percent of students who completed an internship said they received a full-time job offer from a company or organization where they interned, reports a 2006 survey by Vault Inc., a career counseling company.

Caitlin Watras, a senior at Boston College with a communications major, was just starting the application process when she got two separate job offers from companies where she'd interned.

She'd taken internships throughout her undergraduate career, hoping they would lead to a full-time position. "When I chose the places where I was going to intern, I was looking for a company that I could potentially go back to," she says.

In such a job-seeker's market, recruiters may begin offering more than just high salaries to attract new talent. "Recruiters have to be very aggressive," says Dianne Durkin, president and founder of Loyalty Factor LLC, a training and consulting firm in Portsmouth, N.H. "This group of college graduates has their choices. They can be picking and choosing what they want, and they know that."

As a result, firms are more willing to meet graduates on their terms by offering them jobs that emphasize learning and growth opportunities, such as job rotations within the company, flexible hours, and liberal vacation policies, says Mrs. Durkin.

"[These new grads] are willing to work hard, but they're willing to work on their terms," says Durkin. "Recruiters have to cater to this, because if they don't, [grads] will find somebody else who will take them."

Additionally, companies may start appealing to this group of grads' sense of social responsibility. "An important element of attracting and retaining talent is creating a workplace and a work culture that stands for something, that is engaged in the community," says John Challenger president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm in Chicago.

Among other things, he imagines companies will draw attention to their environmentally friendly polices to lure green-minded grads.

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