Class of 2007: You're hired!
The outlook for graduates looks promising, with employers fighting for top talent - despite signs of weakness in the overall job market.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Four years of late-night cramming and exam stress - for the Class of '07, it may have been worth it.
For the 1.5 million college seniors set to graduate this spring, the labor market looks pretty good, according to college career offices across the country, with employer recruitment on the upswing and recruiters squabbling over the top talent.
In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) estimated last fall that employers will hire 17.4 percent more freshly minted college graduates this school year than they did in 2005-2006.
This optimistic outlook for the entry-level set, however, comes just as the larger U.S. job market has shown signs of weakness. Last month, U.S. economic job growth slowed to its weakest level in two years, while a recent survey of 113 chief executives, cited by the outplacement firm Challenger, Grey & Christmas, anticipated a potential hiring lull in the U.S. job market in the coming months.
Nevertheless, the demand for college students remains strong as employers look to build their ranks ahead of the fast-approaching mass retirement of the baby boomer generation. And college career advisors on the ground remain resoundingly upbeat about the outlook for this year's seniors.
Some private schools like Milwaukee-based Marquette University, for example, have received so much interest from recruiters that they have had to turn some away. Larger state institutions like UCLA and Clemson University have had to extend or add an additional career fair to accommodate interested employers.
"What we are seeing across the board is increased participation on the part of employers in recruiting efforts, in posting jobs and attending career fairs," said Marie Rozenblit, the director of career services at the University of Arizona, which graduates roughly 7,500 students very year.
As a result, competition is stiff among employers for top talent.
While signing bonuses are starting to make a modest comeback, most employers are really competing by making higher salary offers to students.
Right now, NACE estimates that employers, on average, will increase their starting salary offers for graduating seniors by 4.6 percent this year.
"The fact that employers are hiring more college graduates and are offering higher starting salaries to their new hires demonstrates how robust the job market is becoming," Marilyn Mackes, NACE executive director said in a recent report on the outlook for graduating seniors.
As in previous years, the spoils of this year's hiring season are going to those seniors with engineering degrees and those in the business and technical fields.
Mechanical and chemical engineering students each reported the biggest increase, with their average starting salaries climbing more than 7 percent, according to NACE.
Salaries for both computer science majors were up almost 2 percent after holding mostly steady last year.
Business-focused students also appear to be faring well this year as average accounting salary offers were up 1.7 percent to $46,508, while finance and economics majors also experienced "respectable" increases, according to NACE.
Other hot hiring areas this year, according to college career advisors informally polled by CNNMoney.com, are management consulting, construction science or civil engineering and companies that work in the energy field.
Liberal arts majors, on the other hand, may not have the banner year they did last year, as early numbers suggest a dip in starting salaries for those majoring in English and art history. As of February, the average starting salary for liberal arts majors is $30,502, down 1.1 percent from last year, according to NACE.
What students really want
While a hefty salary package is awfully lucrative, more and more students are taking a hard look at one to two-year commitments after graduation like teaching English abroad or work for a service program like Teach for America or Americorps before embarking on their career path, say college career advisors.
"There is an altruistic side to them (the students)," said Kathy L. Sims, director of UCLA's career center. "They are interested in giving back something and in many cases related to experiencing other cultures or traveling."
But when it comes to deciding between job offers, today's graduating seniors, as in recent years, are weighing other factors besides salary and benefits, said Laura Kestner, director of Marquette University's career services center.
Students nowadays want to know about the corporate culture at their potential employer, what kind of work-life balance they will have and what kind of growth opportunities are out there.
"This generation of college students has a very different expectation in what work is," said Kestner.