New college grads putting job security high on wish list

PERSONAL FINANCE

May 12, 2002|By EILEEN AMBROSE

FORGET the lattes, massage therapists, foosball tables, rock-climbing walls.

Today's college graduate is interested in something more traditional from an employer - job security.

"Money is the No. 1 topic, but I would say job security has moved from completely off the map to No. 2," said Brian Krueger, president of CollegeGrad.com, an entry-level job site. "People ask, `Is it OK to ask about job security?'"

"It's huge," agreed Adrienne Alberts, interim director of Johns Hopkins University's career center, adding that the top concern among students is landing a job followed by keeping it.

"Students want to know they will be in a position they can count on," she said. "They have seen their friends displaced. They saw friends get job offers and have had to come back to look for other offers because their offers were rescinded."

Students always have been advised to research a potential employer, but with today's volatile economy they are encouraged to dig deeper. They must delve into a company's finances and subtly ask about its prospects and chance of layoffs.

But students worry that in doing this, they may chase off a job offer, experts say. That's understandable. Graduates are entering the worst job market since the 1991 recession. It seems even worse now because until recently companies pursued graduates with offers of high salaries, stock options and signing bonuses.

"They were like NBA stars," said employment expert John Challenger. Now, he said, "rejection notices are piling up."

Companies expect to reduce job offers to college grads by 36 percent this year from last year, and for certain fields, salaries are considerably lower, too, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

And this spring's 1.2 million graduates have plenty of competition. Their resumes vie with those of experienced workers newly laid off and last year's grads who haven't found a job.

"I didn't think anyone was going to hire me," said Jamie Sharp, 21, a business major at Loyola College in Baltimore who recently landed a job offer after a five-month search. He began his hunt by sending 50 resumes to Fortune 500 companies, and heard back from only two that said they weren't hiring.

Salary was most important to Sharp, with job security a close second. Security became important after he was laid off from an internship via voicemail when his employer's business dried up after Sept. 11.

"I just went home to my Mom and Dad," he said, but the situation was worse for some of his laid-off colleagues who had a mortgage or families to support. "That hit home to me that it could have been worse for me at a later time in my life.

"I would stay with a company for job security. I would stay for advancement opportunities," he added.

That's eventually what he found. He accepted a job last month as a systems analyst and management trainee with Geico Direct in Washington.

"When you are looking for a place to go to work, you need to look at where they are going, the type of market they are pursuing, are they concentrated and focused in one niche area? Basically, where will that allow you to be in five years?" said Michael Freund, an accounting major at the University of Baltimore who will begin working next month for the agency that audits Defense Department contracts.

If you're trying to learn about a prospective employer, experts offer these tips:

Browse the company's Web site, especially the section for investors, read the annual report and review online statements filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Go beyond information from a company, though, and look at outside sources such as newspapers and trade publications that can alert you to, say, management changes and expected layoffs, said Hopkins' Alberts.

Those articles, too, can be a way for graduates later to broach tough topics because the company was in the news.

Go to major search engines, plug in the company's name and see what pops up.

If you find lots of resumes recently posted by a company's employees, that should raise questions about why so many are jumping ship, Krueger said.

Check what people are saying about the company on online message boards, such as those at Yahoo.com and Vault.com.

"You get a lot of disgruntled employees bad-mouthing the companies. You have to put it in balance and understand what you are looking at," Krueger said.

Talk to school alumni who work at the company and can give you an insider's view, Alberts said.

If you're interviewing with a company's competitors, listen for comments they make about their rival, said Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation with Salary.com.

Some advise not asking the tough questions in the initial interviews. Krueger recommends waiting until a job offer has been made, but before you accept.

But Coleman suggests not waiting that long.

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