Job-hunting grads in demand

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

From staff and wire reports

The recovering economy and looming retirement of the baby boomers are making this a good year to be a college senior looking for a job after graduation. Recruiters, career counselors and students say the fall recruiting season has been the most active since the dot-com boom.

College hiring is expected to increase 13 percent over last year, according to a new survey from National Association of Colleges and Employers. Seven out of 10 employers said they expected to increase salary offers to new college graduates, according to the survey released late last week, with an average increase of 3.7 percent.

Four in five employers called the job market for new graduates good, very good or excellent; last year fewer than two in five did.

Making up cutbacks

Experts say companies are hiring to handle new work but also making up for years of conservatism -- and anticipating an exodus of retiring baby boomers.

"We've seen employers that have cut back the last few years looking around the office saying, 'We've got this new work. Who's going to do the job?'" said Lee Svete, director of career services at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Due to graduate with a bachelor's degree in health promotion in May, Southeast Missouri State University senior Elizabeth D. Herrion said she's noticed a lot more openings at the companies she's been looking into.

"There seems to be a lot of opportunity out there," Herrion said.

However, Jerry Westbrook, director of Career Services at Southeast, said he's not ready to acknowledge a significant upswing in opportunity for his graduating seniors just yet. He said he has seen some increase in the number of companies attending career fairs and interview days, but he hasn't seen the results as far as actual job offers to and acceptances from his graduates-to-be.

"We haven't seen that increase trickle down yet," Westbrook said. "But it's early."

Westbrook said a more telling indicator than the national survey will be a report from the Michigan State College Employment Research Institute that will be released Thursday. Institute director Phil Gardner said the report will show overall campus hiring is up as much as 20 percent this year, depending on the region.

Westbrook also said that the best gauge will be the activity next semester, when companies go after the much larger crop of spring graduates.

According to the survey, accountants are again finding increased demand for their services -- thanks to the wave of post-Enron regulations -- but theirs is just one of several hot fields. Technology companies, investment banks and consulting firms appear to be picking up the pace, as do some defense contractors and even smaller businesses that haven't traditionally recruited on campus.

"I haven't been to school in the last three weeks because of my interview schedule," said Eric Golden, a senior at Bentley College, a business-oriented school in the Boston suburb of Waltham. He feels lucky to be graduating this year.

Friends with similar credentials who graduated earlier often ended up taking positions that weren't their top choices -- "just to have a job," Golden said. He's been juggling about a dozen interviews with companies including money managers, investment banks and General Electric.

Clear momentum

Experts say hiring still isn't approaching the intensity of the late 1990s. A population boom among college students has tightened competition, and employers remain gun-shy about big bonuses.

Some engineers are still having a tough time, in part because so much manufacturing has moved off shore. And many businesses, notably financial services, learned to get by with leaner staffs during the downturn.

But there is clear momentum. At California State University, Fullerton, the number of companies at a fall career fair was up about 40 percent from last year; at the University of Florida, the number of recruiting companies is up as much as 15 percent.

And at the University of Notre Dame, interviews are up roughly 30 percent and the school had to step in, requiring recruiters to allow students to mull job offers until at least Nov. 24. For the first time since the dot-com boom, competition was fierce enough that companies were pushing students for immediate decisions on their offers.

Don Brezinski, executive director of corporate relations at Bentley, said "we're seeing companies that, instead of looking to hire one or two, have openings of a dozen. It's when you have the big companies going really deep, then you know you're hitting stride with employment recovery."

Accounting remains one of the best backgrounds to have for a job-hunting senior. Finance and -- yet again -- nursing skills are also in demand, and job hunters willing to move have a big advantage. Computer science jobs are also returning after the tech slump, said Carol Lyons, dean of the career services department at Boston's Northeastern University, though other fields are still tough.

But even liberal arts majors need not despair, said Wayne Wallace, director of the career resource center at the University of Florida.

"'Any major' is the No. 1 demand," he said. "We have plenty of employers that say if you are a college grad and want to ... learn our business, we will take you from that point on."

Staff writer Tony Rehagen contributed to this report.

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