CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
CORAL GABLES, FLA. -- Plenty of college students load up their undergraduate years with episodes of self-discovery, tweaking life goals in response.
Mary Carriere's experience might be considered Exhibit A.
Four years ago, Carriere arrived here at the University of Miami intent on medical school. Before long, her interest in numbers nudged her onto a new path: industrial engineering.
But when she pondered life after college, the Fort Myers, Fla., native found herself thinking location, not vocation. She longed for a taste of New York. So last spring Carriere trolled a campus career fair for companies -- any companies -- based there. Eventually, she wound up in financial services, with a summer 2004 internship at UBS. The firm liked that she was a woman with an engineering degree, she says.
Career experts applaud that brand of openness -- graduates shopping their skills to firms in sectors not previously on their radar. In lean hiring years, the tactic can reflect desperation. This year it plays into the gradual opening -- at long last -- of a well-stocked job-market buffet.
The nearly 1.4 million graduates spilling into the working world in 2005 should find the best opportunities this decade.
"This has been the strongest year we've had since 2000," said Susie Clarke, director of undergraduate career services for the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in Bloomington. "We had 12 percent growth over last year in the number of companies coming to campus. The economy's picking up, and more students have offers."
Employers plan to hire 13.1 percent more new graduates in 2005 than they did last year, says Andrea Koncz, employment information manager at the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pa.
Recent NACE surveys point to particular demand in the fields of accounting, engineering and computer-science, she said.
Those fields also are the most heavily represented among online job postings, according to a study by the 4jobs.com Career Network, where, as a group, they account for fully half of the 6,000 current postings on that organization's job boards.
The Midwest appears to be a hiring hotbed, notes Koncz, followed by urban centers in the West and Northeast.
Overall, hiring appears not to be limited to a handful of major employers. Some 47 percent of companies surveyed this month by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University reported they will "definitely" hire new college graduates in 2005 -- an 11 percent increase from two years ago.
"Many employers neglected their pipeline over the past few years because there was so much pressure to keep costs down, and now they're feeling the effects," said John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & amp; Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm. "They're recognizing that they can't afford to wait any longer, so they're stepping up hiring, in part to make up for lost time."
Telecom is still reeling, Challenger notes. And certain areas within state and local government remain under heavy budgetary pressure, although at the federal level a wave of retirements could mean openings over the next couple of years.
Generally, though, the outlook is good. The unemployment rate among those holding a bachelor's degree or higher fell to 2.4 percent early this year, Challenger notes, its lowest mark since August 2001.
Graduates interested in seeing entry-level hirers ranked overall can check Web sites such as CollegeGrad.com. On it, Enterprise Rent-A-Car sits atop the heap with a projected 7,000 hires in 2005. Trailing it: Pricewaterhouse-Coopers and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Job shoppers who use such tools should look past the obvious, say experts.
"A lot of people have preconceived ideas about what kind of companies these are and what kind of positions they have available," said Heidi Hanisko, director of client services for CollegeGrad, in Cedarburg, Wis. "But all of these, especially on a corporate level, have such a variety of positions."
Others counsel grads to stay true to themselves and take advantage of the widening opportunities to find a fit.
"There can be an industry that's hiring like gangbusters and it also may have a turnover rate of 150 percent," said Tom Gimbel, chief executive of The LaSalle Network, a Chicago staffing firm. "You've got to find out what's right for you and follow your true ambitions. ... Too many people who are looking for jobs focus on the hot sectors instead of focusing on a job that they'll like."
Others maintain skills are often transferable. Derek Fohl, an IU senior from Brookville, Ind., succeeded in his job hunt by staying flexible. A four-year marketing student, he plans to make his mark in real estate. But he didn't hesitate to accept an offer with insurance firm,Arthur J. Gallagher & amp; Co. in suburban Chicago.
"I'm going to be dealing with ... decisionmakers within insurance, and I'm going to be learning a lot about sales,"he said.
Graduates' declared majors should never limit their search, said James Smart, director of the University of Miami's career center. Five years out, only about half of graduates are employed in their undergraduate majors.
Students are finally beginning to realize that marketability is tied not to their degree so much as to their capacity for problem-solving, said Smart -- for example, "a nurse who's trying to figure out how to make [hospital] systems work better."
Many graduates are learning another important lesson, says Gimbel.
"I think right now what we're starting to see is the first group of college grads coming out that aren't being spoiled by their peers in hearing about the dotcom boom," he said. "There's a little more of a reality check right now, [and] we're starting to come away from the inflated expectations."
Gimbel recalls 1998 and 1999, when he says graduates emerged feeling entitled to $60,000 starting salaries. The expected salary range today for bachelor's degrees in liberal arts: $29,400 to $35,000, according to CollegeJournal.com. Engineering: $44,300 to $50,000. Communications: $28,900 to $36,700.
Expectations today seem more likely to be self-imposed. Carriere knew she could handle her UBS internship, but still she fretted for about a month waiting to hear if she had made it into the program. It turned out to be a "Survivor"-style audition, whittling down a 60-intern pool to three.
"I think they saw that I had something," said Carriere, who will work in several departments over the next two years, looking for a niche. "For me," she said, "it's perfect."