Firms Want the Grads, but Do the Grads Want Them?

Times Staff Writer

Like many of her fellow seniors, UCLA accounting major Jennifer Huynh has been getting the red-carpet treatment.

Beginning in her junior year, partners from the Big Four accounting firms wined and dined Huynh and her classmates. At one career event last year, the partners donned aprons and passed out appetizers.

After she interned at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the summer, the firm offered her a full-time job after graduation and gave her a bonus when she accepted within a month.


“I definitely felt I had my pick of offers,” said Huynh, who begins her job in September.

The summer of ’06 is likely to offer college graduates the best job market in years, the result of an expanding economy coupled with the first wave of baby boomer retirements. Nearly two-thirds of this year’s estimated 1.4 million U.S. graduates may receive two or more offers, with jobs most abundant in California, Texas and New York, according to Monstertrak, a website that matches companies and college grads.

For the nation’s employers, hiring this year’s class presents challenges beyond dealing with a seller’s market. As members of Generation Y, these young people are bringing a different set of values and attitudes into the workplace. Recruiters report that they tend to be highly informed, picky and very confident -- some say cocky -- about their abilities.

They plot their careers like chess masters. They ask pointed questions about company ethics and finances. Parents are more involved too, quizzing recruiters and in rare cases, even sitting in on job interviews.

“Kids today are wired. They can find out almost anything in seconds about a company and the questions recruiters ask,” said Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXroads, a New Jersey consulting firm. “If the picture you paint is not reality, this generation will quit on a dime.”

Recruiter W. Stanton Smith took note of such brashness a few years ago, when promising young hires quit. “People weren’t just saluting and taking orders anymore,” he recalled.

To land this year’s crop of graduates, many companies have retooled their recruiting pitches and even their corporate cultures. They’re using promotional “branding” campaigns that target prospects as early as their sophomore or junior years, offering to underwrite graduate degrees and showcasing in-house mentoring programs, flextime schedules and philanthropic programs.

Smith directs the Next Generation Initiative at accounting giant Deloitte & Touche, which is aimed at figuring out how to retain the 5,000 Gen Y graduates the firm hires each year.

Deloitte has begun training older managers to be more responsive to their young charges, who not only are career-directed but seek a better work-life balance than their workaholic baby boomer parents, Smith said. One way is through mentoring.

Many applicants are looking for “people to guide them in their career and tell them when they’re off track now, not wait for their performance review,” said Carolyn Martin, a principal with RainmakerThinking Inc., a Connecticut consulting firm specializing in recruitment and retention.

UC Berkeley senior Katie Seligman values that kind of opportunity. The 21-year-old psychology major turned down an offer from Internet search titan Google Inc., instead agreeing to start next month with a San Francisco healthcare consulting firm partly because she will interact with top managers and the chief financial officers of large hospitals.

“I wanted to be challenged,” she said.

To generate buzz for banking giant Wells Fargo & Co., Assistant Vice President Shake Kurkjian helps students polish their resumes at a twice-yearly Cal State Northridge workshop. She said her efforts this month may have netted the bank a couple of strong prospects.

Enterprise Rent-a-Car calls this strategy of cultivating students “high-touch recruiting,” said Assistant Vice President Marie Artim. She oversees 200 recruiters who hire about 7,000 college grads annually.

“We spend time to get to know the students,” Artim said, sometimes by springing for pizza and soda for student club meetings in addition to participating in campus job fairs.

The strong position of college graduates reflects an improved overall employment picture in the wake of the “jobless recovery” that followed the 2001 recession.

After adding only about 1.2 million payroll jobs in the first two years, the nation’s employers have added about 5 million jobs in the last two years. As a result, the nation’s jobless rate has fallen from a post-recession peak of 6.3% in June 2003 to the current 4.7%.

According to the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers, more than 60% of employers responding to the group’s annual survey said they planned to hire more college graduates this year than last. Service sector firms are the most ambitious, expecting to hire 16% more grads this year.

In some industries, the need for people has soared because the work is changing. For instance, new federal regulations applied to corporate financial reporting have been a boon for prospective accountants like Huynh. New graduates with math, economic or accounting skills can expect to earn 5% more than last year’s seniors.

It’s not just engineering and computer science whizzes who are in demand. Many liberal arts and humanities graduates -- who in past years often had to wait tables or start in the mailroom -- are getting multiple offers and signing bonuses, along with the prospect of quick promotions and performance-based pay raises.

For many fresh graduates, getting a job means more than a paycheck and benefits. Corporate charity, for example, is a big draw.

UC Berkeley student Seligman was impressed that her new employer, Triage Consulting Group, pays staffers to join in an annual community service day.

“Entering the workforce is a little intimidating,” she said. “This gives [the company] a softer feel. Philanthropy has always been really important to me.”

So are the values that permeate how business is done.

The Enron Corp. scandal “has really made an impact” on this generation, said Matthew Pietrowicz, an L.A.-area recruiter for Farmers Insurance Group. Students often ask him about Farmers’ financial health and ethics policy, he said.

Those factors were important to UCLA economics major Michael Brown, who is joining Bank of America’s investment banking group next month.

During his internship there last summer, “we had fairly extensive training involving ... behavior and conflicts of interest,” he said. “I admired the firm’s effort on this end.”

Some of the ethics questions come from parents who want to see their children join a stable, above-board company.

“This millennial generation ... is much more trusting of their parents than any of us were,” said Kathy Sims, director of the UCLA Career Center.

Brown said he discussed his career plans with his parents “all the time.” When BofA made him an offer, “it was important to me that they thought this was a good offer and good place to work.”

Sometimes that involvement can go too far.

This year, at a campus career session sponsored by a financial services company that drew 130 students, one father stood beside his son during a mock interview.

“Personally,” Sims said, “I hope we don’t see more of that.”