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Done with GPAs, grads asking about 401(k)s

(ran SP, NP, TP, CI editions)

You might think college students aren't looking much further into the future than next week's exam, or Friday's beer bash.

You would be wrong. This year, college grads are contemplating something quite different, say campus recruiters and researchers: their future 401(k)s.

As companies begin their next round of campus visits to recruit the undergraduate class of 2006, recruiters say it's clear that the bad news of the past few years - from Sept. 11 and the tech crash to Enron, layoffs and worries about Social Security's demise - have shaken this new crop of grads. More than any recruits in memory, they're asking employers for assurances of security, so they don't wind up at the next Enron. And in many cases, amid rising competition for educated workers and declining unemployment, they're getting it: Employers are tailoring pitches and programs to suit them, say recruiters at a dozen big companies, including Boeing, General Electric, Avaya and Intel.

Asked what they expect in their compensation packages, recent grads at 123 universities came up with the most detailed list of long-term benefits in the 11-year history of the poll, from retirement plans to health insurance for dependents - even though most undergrads don't even have dependents. Claudia Tattanelli, CEO of Universum, a research and consulting company that conducted the survey of 29,046 undergrads in all fields of study, says: "This generation is really trying to take their future in their own hands, and do something about it." Asked what elements of compensation they value most, college seniors gave health insurance and retirement plans higher priority than vacations, bonuses and stock options.

Although grads are benefiting from the best job market in four years, they learned from watching the tech crash that corporate fortunes can turn - and campus job offers can be rescinded - on a dime. And they're enjoying growing leverage with employers. With jobless claims nearing a six-year low amid strong economic conditions, the National Association of Colleges and Employers says companies expect to hire 14.5 percent more new college grads this year than last, based on a survey of 250 employers. Steve Canale, manager of recruiting and staffing services for General Electric, says the top 10 percent of recruits are getting five offers this year, instead of the two they typically received in the past couple of years.

Grads are showing a preference for stable, diversified companies, helping propel such giants as Lockheed Martin and Johnson & Johnson sharply higher in Universum's ratings of grads' "ideal employers" among big corporations in all fields, from consulting and finance to manufacturing and retailing. Martin Slevin, manager, retail recruitment, for Walgreen Co., says campus recruits are far more interested in his company's 105-year history and 31 straight years of record profits than they were in the past.

"In light of all the corporate scandals like Enron and Worldcom, where people lost all their savings, I wanted to seek out companies that are stable" and will "live up to" benefits promises, says Tiffany Samuels, a recruit from Xavier University in Cincinnati, who turned down two other offers to sign on with Staples.

Catharine Jennings, a senior Staples recruiter, says one recruit "asked me so many questions about 401(k) and savings plans that I had to refer him to a benefits manager. That's how in-depth the questions were." She adds, "When I got out of college 10 years ago, I was not concerned about my 401(k)."

Surprisingly, grads also find reassurance in a process their parents hate: performance reviews. As part of a generation that started soccer and dance classes as toddlers, recruits are accustomed to organized programs and frequent feedback. They've had "so much programming through school and/or parents, there's an assumption that employers will play that role too," says Rich Hartnett, Boeing's director of global staffing. Will Bass, a senior employment manager at Vanguard Group, adds that grads are "used to having recognition for a job well done."

Allison Keeton, director of college relations for St. Paul Travelers, was startled when one recruit's first comment upon receiving a job offer was to ask how often his performance would be reviewed. Vanguard has begun emphasizing its practice of frequent reviews in its recruiting presentations.

Alex Kushnir, who graduated magna cum laude last month from Cornell University, says he signed on with St. Paul Travelers in Hartford, Conn., partly because while working there as an intern, he saw a young manager in his unit promoted very fast. To him, that proved that "if you work hard, you get rewarded," he says.

Like the previous generation of grads, today's recruits still rate work-life balance as the No. 1 employer attribute they seek, according to Universum. But "they've taken it a step further," says Davie Huddleston, a recruiting executive at PNC Financial Services Group. Grads seem to expect flexibility without the career sacrifices that usually come with it. "This generation is pushing the envelope. They're making us rethink what it takes to be successful," says Laurie Tortorella, a recruiting executive for Intel.

Firms are tailoring their pitches in response. A campus brochure from PricewaterhouseCoopers features a photo of a young man cartwheeling on a beach with the headline: "Your life. You can bring it with you."