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College seniors shop a tighter job market

Louis Haber, a Swarthmore senior majoring in economics and Spanish, is heading down the homestretch for graduation without a job in sight.

Except for two engineering students he knows, he says none of the rest of his friends -- mostly liberal arts majors -- have jobs lined up. And he adds that a friend from the class of 1981 only recently landed a job in publishing after a year clerking at a shoelace factory.

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Mr. Haber's observation is representative of the nationwide job outlook for college seniors cashing in degrees for paychecks this spring. According to surveys and individual observations by experts:

* Fewer job offers have been made this school year than last, but salaries are higher.

* While liberal arts majors will find the job market tough to crack, their technically trained classmates will hardly be out of their caps and gowns before they report to work.

* Most graduates not hired immediately in their field of study are almost certain to be employed - more accurately, underemployed -- in areas like clerking or waiting tables until they do find jobs in their chosen professions.

* Students, with a heightened awareness of the troubled business climate, may have unwittingly made the job market appear tighter as they rushed to accept offers earlier in the year than usual.

Noting in its periodic survey of 161 universities that the number of jobs offered by recruiters was down this school year, the College Placement Council checked with employers for the reason.

''Their response was they're experiencing an economic crunch, that there is slowing activity and they're cutting back in their recruiting this spring,'' explains Linda Pengilly, information assistant with the council. She adds that the survey measures only the number of job offers students record at college placement offices and not the actual number of jobs available. A single student may have any number of job offers, so to place a number or percentage on the decrease would not necessarily give an accurate view of job availability, she says.

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Most recruiters and placement officials interviewed cite the council's survey as evidence of the uncertain employment outlook, but Frank S. Endicott tempers the findings with a different perspective.

Mr. Endicott, author of the Endicott Report, a Northwestern University survey that has charted employment among college graduates for 35 years, suggests that by snapping up job offers quickly, students may be slightly skewing the actual job picture.

''Students, being apprehensive about what they're hearing about the job market, got on (job recruiters') interview schedules right away. The students have accepted the offers more promptly so that not so many offers have had to be made, and the companies were able to fill their quotas much earlier this year. They didn't visit as many campuses or have as many jobs open later in the season.''

(IBM, for example, confirms that its job-offer acceptance rate is running 25 percent ahead of last year at the same time.)

Reports of recruiting cutbacks are not easy to confirm. Officials at the Fluor Corporation in California, for example, suggest it might give competitors an edge if they were to divulge recruiting figures.

A General Dynamics official, however, admitted a ''slight'' dip in recruiting for the company's commercial division ''because of the economy . . . and sales are down.'' On the other hand, the company was looking for 1,200 technically trained graduates for its larger, defense-related divisions.

At Swarthmore, reports Judith Katz, director of career planning and placement , 21 recruiters visited campus this year as compared with 28 last year and 44 the year before. She adds that two-thirds of the recruiters were looking for technically trained students in a class that is 65 percent liberal arts majors.

Although recruiting statistics are not complete at other colleges checked by the Monitor, placement officers repeatedly suggested they had ''a feeling'' that recruiting is down this year.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, a placement official says recruiting is not coming close to hiring projections made by employers last fall. A Harvard official, on the other hand, reports that banking and consulting recruiting for liberal arts students appears to have held as strong as last year.

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where students have camped out overnight to be first with some recruiters, associate placement director Clark Edwards says recruiting may be slightly lower this year. But, he says, salaries are running an average of 5 percent to 7 percent higher than last year.

The College Placement Council's survey confirms the higher salary offers. For example, the top offers to students with bachelors degrees have gone to petroleum engineering majors with an annual average salary of more than $30,000 -- 14.2 percent over July 1981. Chemical engineers were offered more than $27, 000 annually to start -- an 11.5 percent gain over last year.

Mr. Edwards estimates that 50 to 60 percent of students do not get their jobs through campus recruiters, who largely represent big business. This then suggests that many graduates will get their jobs in smaller businesses, which generate the bulk of new jobs annually.

Here again, the small businesses least affected by the economic crunch are in the technical fields most likely to hire graduates, says Tom Gray, chief economist at the Small Business Administration.

Placement and recruiting officials agree that by summer most graduates will be employed.

''It just isn't true (that college graduates) cannot find jobs. Maybe not yet , or the kinds that they want, but in general the college graduates as a group are not unemployed,'' asserts Mr. Endicott. He says that US Labor Department statistics consistently show that college graduates are the least unemployed group in the labor force. (In 1981, overall unemployment was 7.9 percent, while unemployment was only 5.5 percent among college graduates under 24 years of age.)

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