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The job picture for college graduates is likely to improve this year for the first time since 2001, but competition for work remains fierce because of a tight employment market.

Companies said they will hire almost 13 percent more graduates in 2004, compared with last spring, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pa.

It marks the first time in three years that employers said they would increase hiring. Companies predicted a 3.6 percent decline in hiring last year and a 20 percent decline in 2002, according to the annual survey.

Top jobs include accounting and finance, entry-level management posts, sales, teaching and engineering, according to the survey. Starting salaries for those jobs range from $29,396 to $44,518 a year.

In another positive sign, average salary offers for science and technology graduates are moving higher, the association said. For instance, the average offer to computer science majors has risen 8.9 percent above last year to $48,656.

Other experts said potential for work in construction and health care also remains strong. And local college officials said they continue to see big numbers of federal government recruiters at job fairs.

About 1.3 million college students will be looking for work this year, according to John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago outplacement firm.

But they'll be competing with recent college graduates who didn't find work in their respective fields during the past few years and recent retirees who are rejoining the work force to pay for higher health care costs, Challenger said.

Even with demand for new workers up, the job market is nothing like it was during the technology boom of the late 1990s, when students were choosing from a variety of posts and landing signing bonuses and other perks.

The economy "isn't roaring by any means, but we have seen a kind of choppy upward growth," Challenger said. "It does take a while for the job market to catch up, but there is evidence that it's out there."

The national jobless rate hit 5.6 percent in January, its lowest in about two years.

"If you're a student," Challenger said, "now's the time to get a jump on it."

Colleen Hellman, a 22-year-old logistics and transportation major from Nashville, Tenn., who will be graduating this spring from the University of Maryland, College Park, said she recently accepted a $35,000-a-year job with a military agency's purchasing department. She had practically given up on the job when she didn't hear back for five months.

"It's so competitive right now," said Hellman, who interviewed three times with Pepsi Bottling Co. before losing out to someone else. "There were about 40 other students who submitted a resume [for a Black and Decker job]. I had lots of interviews, I had a good [grade point average] and lots of leadership experience. It's been pretty tough."

But at this point, any positive news is welcome on college campuses after the job market's poor showing in 2003, said William Carson, director of the Career Development Department at Morgan State University.

"I've been in this business for 20 years, and 2003 was probably the most dismal I've seen in over a decade," Carson said. "Unemployment was up, most organizations were cutting positions, and even those that weren't laying off were not hiring at entry level. But I'm a lot more optimistic about the class of 2004."

Most area schools said they have seen more interest this year from employers about recruiting on campus.

The college association survey found that 60 percent of the nation's employers will recruit this spring, compared with 58 percent last year. The association sent 1,800 surveys to employers - 457 responded. The group, which conducted the survey from Sept. 1 through Jan. 12, said it sent 390 questionnaires to colleges - 90 were returned.

"We are seeing what I consider a slight but steady increase in a return to college recruiting," said Roberta Kaskel, associate director at the University of Maryland Career Center. "We are seeing most of those increases [in number of recruiters] in the federal sector. Clearly the federal government and the Department of Defense have been on a major recruiting campaign."

Linda Bowie, director of the Career Development and Co-Op Center at Coppin State College, said she believes things will improve - it just hasn't happened yet.

"Thus far it's been slow," Bowie said. "Will things pick up? That is what I'm hoping, and I'm sure that's what the students are hoping for. I just haven't seen a big change yet."

Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls will be sending several recruiters to Morgan State's spring job fairs. Nationally, the automotive system manufacturer expects to hire 800 new employees, including 25 in the Baltimore and Washington areas. Positions will include technical sales and engineering jobs, with starting salaries between $45,000 and $55,000.

"The market has been in a downturn for many companies," said Equilla Wainwright, corporate director of diversity work force at Johnson Controls Inc. "That was painfully clear to us at one job fair last year when GM, Ford, and even IBM said they were there to show support, but they wouldn't be interviewing."

Other employers said they're hiring early this year.

"We anticipate an increased need this year," said Maria Degilio, who ran a booth for Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. at the University of Maryland's Feb. 11th job fair. "As a result we need to start early [looking for employees], because if we wait too long, they'll already have jobs. You have to catch them right as they're starting their career hunt."

Computer science major Dmitriy May, a 21-year-old Towson University senior from Canton, Conn., is searching for work in the computer industry.

"I've looked a lot, and the percentage of finding something has been very small," May said, who currently works at an internship doing database work but expects to find a permanent job. "I've had 20 or so interviews, and a couple more coming up this semester."

Challenger suggests that the nation's college seniors keep networking.

"It's very possible that we're into a [growth] period," he said. "We've been through three years of lackluster economy, so I do think we're in a period and we're going to see better productivity.

"Companies seem to be back on track," Challenger said. "Instead of just cutting costs, they're looking at new product development and investing in capital equipment."

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