There are more jobs for this year's 1.2 million college graduates, but salaries for many entry-level positions are lower and companies' expectations for their young recruits are significantly higher.
The rules of the job hunt--and the jobs themselves--are also changing. The corporate restructurings of the past few years have forced companies to revamp their hiring practices, making a graduate's first job harder to get.
DuPont Co. will take on 250 college graduates this year, half with doctorates. Although that's 100 more than last year, it's still significantly below the 1,000 recruits DuPont hired in previous years.
Citibank will hire 25% more college graduates than last year. The bank will also hire more people with bachelor's degrees than in previous years, but it has cut the number of business school graduates it takes on.
College placement offices see the improvement in the market. At Smith College in Northampton, Mass., many more companies are recruiting on campus than last year, said Barbara Reinhold, director of the Career Development Office.
Overall, hiring of recent college graduates is up 8.8% over last year, although companies are taking on only about half the number of workers they hired in 1989, said Maury Hanigan, president of Hanigan Consulting Group.
Despite the increase, recruiters are much more selective.
"We used to hire from among the top 10% in a graduating class; now we look only at the top 1%," said Lew Shumaker, DuPont's manager of college relations and recruitment.
Hanigan, whose firm advises companies on strategic staffing, said corporate reorganizations have made employers more choosy.
"With corporate cost cutting a focus, it's too expensive for a company to hire and train an individual, then have them leave," Hanigan said. "Companies are looking much more closely at who they hire."
Among the biggest selling points for a new graduate is previous job experience, recruiters said.
"It's worthwhile for a college graduate to show not just achievement at school, but actual work experience," said James E. Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an international outplacement company. "Companies want a track record."
Corporate training programs have been casualties of cost cutting at many companies, Challenger said. "This year's college graduates face a market that is much more interested in people they can put to work right away," he said. Companies are putting new recruits in entry-level jobs and asking them to learn about the product from the bottom up, he said.
Perhaps reflecting that trend, salaries for some entry-level jobs have declined since last year, Challenger said.
The College Placement Council in Bethlehem, Pa., said business graduates this year saw a 3% drop in average starting salaries, to $23,820.
Another trend spotted by management consultants is toward hiring for the short term rather than permanently.
"As companies go through recessions and downsizing, they don't want any more fixed costs than necessary," said David A. Hofrichter, managing director of the Hay Group of management consultants.