By the time Chester Bragado rolled into UC Riverside for his senior year, the 22-year-old business major had been wined and dined and taken to speedway races. He then received offers from three accounting firms.
Fully eight months before graduation, Bragado accepted a job with his most- persistent suitor, Deloitte & Touche, which offered him a signing bonus and perks such as a corporate credit card. His starting pay: more than $40,000.
"It's a lot of money," said Bragado, who has been holding down part-time jobs to help put himself through college.
But it's pretty much the norm for this spring's crop of college graduates, who are such a hot commodity in the booming economy that employers are pulling out all stops to sign up promising prospects.
Companies have boosted salaries--computer engineering grads heading into the work world can expect to earn $48,000 a year, up 5% over salaries for last spring's grads. In addition, employers are offering up such incentives as signing bonuses and stock options--even free use of a BMW for a year.
"It's unbelievable," said Kathryn Van Ness, career center director at UC Irvine. "There is no excuse for any student not to have something of value this summer. There are shortages everywhere, and I am being inundated with inquiries from employers everywhere for talent."
Although technology grads have been in high demand for years, the recruiting stampede has extended to other disciplines. Even liberal arts majors are juggling multiple job offers, college officials say.
"We are in our third consecutive year of some really aggressive recruiting, but this year it's for a wide variety of job openings that play to a wide variety of students," said Phil Gardner of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "This has really captured everybody--liberal arts students as well as technical and professional grads."
About half of all grads this year have already lined up jobs, a number that would be much higher but for procrastinators who have dawdled because they are taking the healthy job market for granted, according to a survey by the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers.
"It all kind of feeds on itself," said Camille Luckenbaugh, employment information officer for the organization. "You have a good economy, tight labor market and businesses expanding. There's a need not just for high-tech people; people need to hire an array of graduates."
Luckenbaugh said starting salaries for liberal arts graduates have also jumped 5% to $29,105, with consulting firms offering more than $38,000, on average.
As a result, many liberal arts grads are putting plans for graduate school on hold to take advantage of lucrative offers, career counselors say.
At Occidental College, a liberal arts school in Los Angeles with a senior class of 331, recruiters were descending on the campus even after the May 19 commencement, said Judy Fisher, director of the career development center.
By that time, Bill Grant, a 21-year-old graduate in economics and Japanese, had already weighed five offers before deciding to join Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. in Manhattan. He'll begin later this month as an investment banker/analyst, with a starting salary of $45,000. Grant received a $5,000 signing bonus and can make up to $40,000 in additional bonuses at the end of the year, depending on his performance.
"We just happened to come across the best job market of all time," he said. "Everyone is getting a job, it seems."
In the scramble to woo promising grads, companies also are offering such perks as a flexible work schedule, telecommuting, casual work dress, a delayed start after summer vacation and generous relocation packages.
Several career counselors said companies have learned that setting up a table or a booth on campus during career day is no longer effective, especially since job fairs are booked beyond capacity at many schools.
"There is a lot more personalized attention, maybe hosting small get-togethers as opposed to lots of students in one room," said UC Irvine's Van Ness. "This generation really values being appreciated and having recognition."
The aggressive courtship worked with Chester Bragado, who recalled how Deloitte & Touche invited him to several social events during his junior year. So when he ended up with three job offers, the decision was easy.
"I met a lot of their people and got a taste of the culture outside work," said Bragado, who will join the company as a staff auditor. "I knew those were the type of people I wanted to work with."
But the seller's market has brought its own set of pressures on grads, who find themselves weighing multiple job opportunities as well as "explosive job offers"--lucrative bids that are withdrawn if they aren't accepted within 24 or 48 hours.