Christina Burek's career path is paved with golden prospects.
Two or three times a week, the University of Maryland student dons her navy blue power suit and holds forth about herself and her accomplishments. One morning recently, Burek weathered five consecutive 30-minute interviews: General Electric Information Services Inc., Exxon Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Unilever PLC. Afterward, she hung out in the University of Maryland's career center lounge to chat with prospective employers.
For a salary of $45,000 or more, the 23-year-old mechanical engineering major, slated to graduate in December, is ready to offer her internship experience, 3.3 grade-point average and good interpersonal skills to a firm she likes.
In this hot job market, when Washington area unemployment is at a historic low of 2.6 percent, college graduates with technical training, like Burek, have an array of high-paying, prestigious jobs to choose from. Many of these students are at colleges in Prince George's County--three four-year colleges, a community college and the University of Maryland University College for adults--and college placement offices are swamped with requests from employers to interview students.
"I can hardly handle them all," Mary G. Johnson, of Bowie State University, said, referring to employers coming to interview some of the school's 1,600 undergraduates. This year, Johnson, Bowie State's director of career and cooperative educational services, organized a fall job fair that attracted more than 90 employers, up from last year's 80. Some had to be turned away, she said.
At the University of Maryland at College Park, the number of employers participating in on-campus job fairs has increased 288 percent in the last five years, to more than 600 firms, said Linda Gast, director of the school's career center. The number of on-campus interviews has increased 150 percent in the last five years, she said.
Almost 7,000 of the 24,000 College Park undergraduates interview each year on campus, mostly for full-time positions with mid- to large-size companies looking for engineering and computer science majors, Gast said.
In their quest for the best and brightest, employers are offering today's graduates generous salaries, signing bonuses, healthy 401(k) benefits and, in some cases, lucrative stock options.
Carolyn Ford is one of almost 40 campus recruiters whose purpose is scoping out campuses for potential employees for Plano, Tex.-based Electronic Data Systems. Last year, the company hired 2,000 recent college graduates nationally, or about 30 percent of the college seniors they interviewed. During this recruiting season, Ford plans to interview about 150 students at the University of Maryland. EDS has stepped up its campus presence and fostered name recognition by sponsoring on-campus events or getting involved in student organizations, even those not directly related to recruitment, Ford said.
The students, in turn, seem to understand that they are wanted and needed. That is reflected in the studied, confident gestures of students at the College Park career center one recent morning: They are at home in their dark suits, and practiced in their firm handshakes. It's to the point where the demand for their labor has gone to some students' heads, said Richard Beall, director of career services at Capitol College, a four-year engineering school in Laurel. "In many cases, the ones that are very good--they can be cocky at times," he said.
Even for the less "hot and marketable" majors--history, English and other liberal arts fields--there is increased demand, Gast said.
"I'm beginning to see indications that employers are looking at other disciplines" for students with communication and interpersonal skills adaptable to a variety of jobs, she said. "We have always had to market our services more concertedly to liberal arts majors," with a series of seminars tailored for English and history majors searching for career paths, she said.
At Capitol College, which has about 730 undergraduates, the average salary for a graduating senior has increased 29 percent, from $35,540 in 1994 to $45,838 last year. And the students can be choosy about which firms they talk to.
"I am having to beg students to come in for on-campus interviews" to fill time slots, Beall said. More than 80 percent of juniors and seniors at Capitol College already have jobs, he said. "The economy is so good that, even in an educational institution, the number of candidates that are not working is dwindling," he said. "It puts me into a predicament where I will lose a [relationship with a] big-name employer because I can't get enough students" who need jobs and will interview, he said.
Steve Noonan, a 27-year-old senior electrical engineering major at Capitol College, is angling for a job with a salary of at least $60,000. He recently attended an on-campus interview with MCI WorldCom Inc., which served a generous spread of food to 20 or 25 prospective employees, he said.
"I tend to do my interviewing on my own," Noonan said, but he uses the on-campus career center for building contacts. "If you do the legwork, its a seller's market," he said.
A survey in August by employment agency Manpower Inc. of Annapolis showed that 33 percent of employers in the Washington area planned to increase their work forces this quarter. In Prince George's County, 27 percent of employers plan to hire in the same period. The next several months are expected to be similarly bright for job-seekers.
At the University of Maryland, officials began to get ready a few years ago as interest from employers began to increase. To accommodate the rise in traffic, the university built a new, $1.2 million career center that includes 21 refurbished interview rooms, a resource room and a computer lab.
At Bowie State, additional rooms are used outside the career center to accommodate interviews, Johnson said. In addition to the two rooms available to the career center, she books three more in adjacent buildings, she said. "Normally, we start [the recruiting season] in October, but this year it started September 16" with a steady stream of employers coming by almost every day in hot pursuit of technical students and business majors, she said.
Sue Baczynski, coordinator of career services at Prince George's Community College, said even the recruiters are surprised by how competitive the on-campus scramble for a work force has become. At the fall job fair, she had to do something she's never done before: She turned away 10 amazed employers at the door because there was no space for their booths, she said. "Students themselves are looking for better jobs" and getting them, Baczynski said.
To many thirty-something recruiters who graduated a decade ago, the offers their companies are making now sound unbelievably good. But for college graduates in their early twenties, getting a piece of the windfall from the booming economy is considered the norm because inflation and high employment are not a part of their generational memory.
John Radko, an on-campus recruiter and manager of an Internet engineering division of GE Information Services in Rockville, received a bachelor's degree from the the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business in 1990, when the job market for college graduates was much tougher. These days, "students are definitely more business savvy, and they're getting much more internship experience," he said. Students are much more likely than before to make a counteroffer and angle for a higher salary, said Radko, who has been a recruiter for about six years.
That describes Michelle Liu, 21, who is superbly confident that several firms will make her an offer. With a 3.94 cumulative GPA and a resume loaded with campus leadership positions, the University of Maryland business major is expecting to land a consulting job that pays $47,000 to $56,000. "I think I have marketable skills," she said in the seasoned manner of someone who has been through eight interviews. The Silver Spring native has "always known this major was hot and marketable," she said.
Only a couple of weeks from graduation, she is considering an offer while sifting through call-backs and second-round interviews with other firms. Burek, who recently flew to Detroit for a second-round interview on Ford's dime, is undaunted by the process that has wined and dined her. "I love it," she said, with a confident nod of her head.
CAPTION: At left, Christina Burek, who is being courted by several engineering firms, walks to the College Park career center for an interview with DuPont Co. Above, Natasha Speller, left, and Nainesh Brahmbhatt look up job openings in the new career center.
CAPTION: In the tight labor market, employers are augmenting their recruiting strategies.
CAPTION: Margaret Peng, of Andersen Consulting, left, talks with student Bonnie Benson.