Graduate salaries take off

March 20, 1998

THE lowest unemployment rate in 24 years has sent demand soaring for United States university and college graduates, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a coalition of campus career directors and corporate recruiters.

Nearly 70 per cent of employers plan to hire more new graduates this year than last, the association says. Hiring of new graduates is expected to jump by 20 per cent.

Randy Williams, director of career services at the University of California at Irvine, said: "I have never seen a job market that's as good as this. I'm sure I'm not going to see it again in my lifetime. Three or four years ago students would have been happy with any offer. Now they have their pick, and the salaries are blowing my mind."

One by one, Mr Williams lists the prospects of students who will finish the graduate business programme at Irvine this spring: multiple job offers, high salaries, cash bonuses, stock options.

"One student called to get an extension from a company that had given him a six-figure offer," Mr Williams said. "Before he could even say what he wanted, they offered him another five grand and a signing bonus."

Computer science and engineering graduates are seeing average starting salaries of more than $40,000, up nearly 9 per cent from last year. Even liberal arts majors are drowning in offers, with rising starting salaries that average nearly $30,000 - up 6.5 per cent since last year - from merchandising and insurance companies.

"It's a trickle-down thing," said Camille Luckenbaugh, career association spokeswoman. Employers "are willing to take well-educated bodies and train them. They don't care what the degree is in".

Meanwhile, corporations anxious to fill jobs are pressuring students to make decisions quickly with the use of so-called "exploding offers", promising huge up-front signing bonuses that decline the longer it takes to join up.

"Recruiters are using bonuses to cement their claims on top talent as quickly as possible," said William Woolery, director of graduate placement at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business. "One student was told that if he gave an answer by weekend, he'd get a $7,000 bonus right away, but he would only get half that amount up front if he waited longer." Other companies also are offering stock options and tax-free loans.

Some university careers directors worry that the sudden lure of up-front cash will blind their graduates to whether an offer actually is the best for them.

"You want to make sure the person who accepts the offer is really interested in the job. They're going to be a much better employee," Mr Williams said. "If they feel pressed to take it, they may determine at a later date that the job is not for them." There also is concern about ill-will from older workers who got their jobs when unemployment was high, and still are earning less than the arriving crop of fresh-faced students; and about whether this large wave of graduates is truly qualified to do the work.

"Some of the employers told us that they would prefer to hire experienced workers, but can't find any," said Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the career association.

Yet with three months to go before the graduation season, the offers keep pouring in, even though many schools report their students all are taken.

"The problem for a lot of graduates isn't going to be if they can find a job, but where do they want to work," said Patrick Mullane, director of career planning and placement at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

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