The recovering economy and looming retirement of the baby boomers are making this a very 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.
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.
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 grads, 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 grads good, very good or excellent; last year fewer than two in five did.
Michigan State's College Employment Research Institute will release a report Thursday that director Phil Gardner said will show overall campus hiring is up as much as 20 percent this year, depending on the region.
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 in South Bend, Ind., 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."
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, Notre Dame's director of career services.
Accounting remains one of the best backgrounds to have for a job-hunting senior. PriceWaterhouseCoopers plans to hire about 3,100 people off U.S. college campuses this year, up almost 19 percent from last year. Ernst & Young, another big accounting firm, plans to increase hiring about 30 percent this year and bring on 4,000 new college grads. Jim Case, director of the career center at Cal State-Fullerton, says regional and local accounting firms are hiring, too.
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, like journalism, 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."