Say what you want about a slowing national economy. Many employers continue to beat the bushes for new graduates with construction-related degrees. "There is such an overdemand for good help that recent graduates are writing their own ticket. When I graduated in 1995, we were happy to get a job with a decent company," says Patrick Brown, president of Brown Building Co., Elmhurst, Ill. "Today, recent graduates are getting signing bonuses, excessive salaries and benefit packages that are accustomed to a veteran of 10 years."

STOPPING TRAFFIC Mahoney received an "overwhelming" response to her resume. (Photo by Tom Sawyer for ENR)

Besides offering salaries that sometimes exceed those paid to existing employees in similar positions, many construction-related employers are spending more time and money on recruitment tactics. From shmoozing professors to sponsoring student events and contests, from advertising in college newspapers and on the Internet to participating in career fairs, from offering summer internships to dangling management training programs, recruiters are trying just about everything.

On the walls of three labs in the Dept. of Building Construction Management at Purdue University, 26 construction firms are paying $6,000 each for 4x8 ft of space in which to display advertising posters. "We basically have waiting lists for people to get into this," says Department Head Stephen D. Schuette, who concocted the first-of-its-kind scheme to fund periodic upgrades to the labs’ computers. "We have approximately 300 companies per year inquire about hiring our students," he adds, predicting that many of the department’s 76 students graduating this spring will finish with four or five job offers each.

For all the talk of multiple offers, though, no one knows the number of jobs available for majors in construction-related disciplines. Neither the American Institute of Architects, the American Society of Civil Engineers nor the Associated Schools of Construction tracks that supply and demand. "I wish we did have these statistics, because it would help us a lot," says Pamela L. Kortan, executive director of the American Institute of Architecture Students, Washington, D.C. "The rumor we hear is that there are a lot more openings than there are students graduating."

GAINS. A look at starting salaries provides an indication of the demand. Texas a&m University reports that its 66 undergraduates finishing this spring in construction received offers so far of $30,000 to $55,000. In an economy-wide survey released last month on hiring trends comparing this year to last, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that civil engineering grads were also among those who made substantial gains. Their average offer rose 9.2% to $39,852. Engineering services firms showed the most interest in these grads, but those lucky enough to receive offers from building, developing and general contracting companies saw an even higher average of $43,846.

FACE TIME Paid-for wall space at Purdue computer labs get contractors' message before Professor Schuette's students.(Photo courtesy of Purdue)

Even now with economic storm clouds, many construction-related employers see no reason to run for cover. Gilbane Building Co., Providence, R.I., plans to increase its nationwide staff of 1,500 by 400 this year, including 50 to 80 new grads. Gilbane just began paying bonuses of $500 to $1,500 to employees who find new hires, including new grads. Other firms also continue to spend big on college recruitment. Denver-based CH2M Hill Infrastructure & Environment Inc. budgeted $400,000 this year for college relations, and reports spending an average of $50,000 on landing and grooming each new grad hired. This year, the firm plans to add more than 100 new grads in the technical arena.

Luring students takes getting noticed. In its first-ever campaign, Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc. began running display advertising in college newspapers in January. The ads urged students to browse the company’s Website and learn about RTKL’s opportunities for graduating designers. With 900 employees, RTKL plans to hire 40 new grads this year.

Public-sector employers also continue to offer a lot of work–and competition for new grads. By July, the California Dept. of Transportation plans to hire 1,000 employees, including the 415 hired in the second half of 2000, more than 75% of them straight out of college. Before school lets out this spring, Caltrans recruiters plan to visit 45 out-of-state schools as well as most of California’s colleges and universities.

Not all of the best-known names in the industry believe in on-campus recruiting. But many do, apparently for good reason. Pennsylvania State University reports that last year 59% of its architectural engineering grads first made contact with an eventual employer at a campus career fair. In recent months, career fairs at Penn State, Texas A&M and the University of Florida each attracted more than 100 contractors, according to Associated Builders and Contractors. "Typically, if you have 100 companies exhibiting at booths, there are really only 35 to 40 graduates for them," says Fred Day, abc’s school-to-career director in Rosslyn, Va. "The job market is definitely a student’s right now."

Recruiters sometimes step on each other’s toes, even from the same firm. After that happened to managers from some of RTKL’s 11 offices, the firm decided recently to centralize its college recruitment. CH2M Hill also takes a centralized approach to coordinating university visits by "ambassadors"–company engineers with five to 10 years of experience who spend up to 5% of their time on college relations.

CAREERS FAIR The University of Florida gives recruiters room to pitch to students.(Photo courtesy of University of Florida)

But some blue-ribbon firms shun college placement offices and career fairs altogether. Loath to sort through chaff, Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP recruits entry-level structural engineers almost entirely through professors. "If a professor calls us up and tells us this is the guy we ought to hire, we hire them," says William F. Baker, partner in charge of SOM’s structural engineering practice.

Eager to get on the inside track with certain professors, some firms give them the proverbial grand tour. Walt Disney Imagineering takes some to its theme parks. In Orlando, "they took us through the new construction and then had us meet executives at Disney for dinner," says Richard Coble, an associate professor at the University of Florida’s School of Building Construction. "Their approach is to go to the professors and get involved with students that way."

Circumstances force some employers to rely on school contacts. Some firms cannot afford on-campus recruiting or exhibiting at career fairs, and so they try to bypass college placement offices by advertising on the Internet, only to end up frustrated. Looking for unpaid interns, Valdis Smits, president of a two-person architectural firm in Watertown, Mass., says he went back to using college placement offices after failing to get any responses on line at Rising Star Internships.

But other firms get more than they bargained for when posting on line. "When we posted nationally, we got too many resumes," complains Michael J. Blach, president of a fast-growing $40-million-per year firm in Santa Clara, Calif., that lacks a human-resources department. While advertising at Job-trak.com, "it would not be uncommon to receive over 100 resumes for a two-week posting," Blach says. Blach Construction Co. turned to its younger employees for help. With plans to hire three entry-level project engineers in coming months, the firm now relies on employees to leverage personal ties with local professors and graduating students. Blach particularly relies on the firm’s recent grads 26 years old and under, who make up 27% of the 85-person staff. "You need young people in your organization to attract young people," he says. And he listens to them. After some of them grumbled, he stopped paying $2,500 signing bonuses last summer to new hires. Now he starts new engineers at $45,000 to $48,000, former bonuses included. "We want them to work here–not to think that we’re buying them," Blach says.

With starting salaries so competitive, even some large firms complain of difficulties in attracting the best students. "The quality of the hires may not be what it once was," admits Peter A. Hannan, human resources director at 10,000-person CH2M Hill. In the past, the firm usually ended up with enough recruits by winnowing out all but the top one or two students from a graduating class. But now when sorting through candidates from graduating classes in civil and environmental engineering and construction management, CH2M Hill looks throughout the classes’ top quartile.

Increasingly, traditional architectural and engineering firms must compete for talent with the likes of Accenture, the former Andersen Consulting. "The good grads are not going into the A-E firms. They’re going into the consulting firms," says Daniel Dornan, a vice president at Infrastructure Management Group, Bethesda, Md. High-priced consultants extend some of the most tantalizing offers because "we do try to have the best and brightest," says Evandro F. Braz, partner in charge of the national engineering and construction practice in the New York City office of Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP.

At Pricewaterhouse, a new hire with a bachelor’s in a construction-related field can start at $50,000 or more and receive an annual bonus of $10,000, with an "even crazier" package for a newly minted master of business administration with a bachelor’s in engineering, Braz confirms. Pricewaterhouse hires 4,000 to 6,000 new grads annually, including 500 to 700 from design and construction programs, adds a company spokesman in Chicago.

Rather than try to outbid any "crazy" offers, some firms try to win over new grads with a holistic approach. Compared to Pricewaterhouse, where new hires often work such long hours that Pricewaterhouse is trying to let them work from home on Friday nights, CH2M Hill promises to support a balance between work and family. In the past year and a half, CH2M Hill also upgraded its policies on tuition reimbursements, casual dress and telecommuting–and decreased its overall attrition to 9% last year, down from 12% in 1999.

But attrition even plagues firms that enfold new grads in management training, mentoring and peer groups. Gilbane pays new grads an average of $43,000, pairs them with senior executives and acclimates the grads in peer groups. Gilbane also puts new hires through a two-year rotation to learn about company operations, estimating, purchasing, cost accounting and business development. Gilbane even offers them computer training to learn about project administration, cost accounting and design services. Many of the new grads take the management training and run. "At the critical five-year mark, we’ve retained roughly 27 to 30% of those people," says Wesley C. Cotter, a Gilbane spokesman. "But of the 27%, we get a lot of leaders for the company, so we love the program."

CAREERS FAIR The University of Florida gives recruiters room to pitch to students.(Photo courtesy of University of Florida)

ASTOUNDING INTERNS. To reduce attrition, Denver-based PCL Construction Enterprises Inc. decided to strengthen its internship program. In a study five years ago, PCL found that just 30% of its entry-level field engineers and project managers were still working with the company after five years. Yet of those who had interned with PCL as students, 70% had remained with the firm after five years. That finding "absolutely astounded us," says Dennis A. Dahl, PCL’s human resources director.

Observers point out that many students want a first job where they previously interned or otherwise know someone with inside information. With that in mind, PCL decided to reduce its reliance on campus cold-calling, while increasing its use of interns to 25 to 30 per year. PCL also works hard to entice them with significant work on submittals, shop drawings and change orders. Now the firm captures half of its interns after graduation–double the industry average for getting new grads to accept job offers, Dahl says. But capturing engineers with even three years of experience remains difficult, so PCL recently began asking its eight offices to hire at least two entry-level engineers per year, above and beyond project-specific needs, Dahl says. "We’re saying, ‘It doesn’t matter. Hire them, because you are going to need them.’" With a staff of 640, PCL now tries to hire 60 to 80 new grads each year.

Recruiters watch and wait for years for some students. "It’s a long lead time," says David J. Ferretti, staffing director at San Francisco-based Swinerton Inc., which plans to add 30 entry-level project engineers this year to its staff of 1,200. Ferretti scouts at industry contests, like the one that Associated Schools of Construction and Associated General Contractors of America held in Reno, Nev., in January. Swinerton sponsored the design-build category, giving student teams 18 hours to develop a design, cost, construction sequence and schedule for a 700-space parking structure. One student, first noticed by Swinerton at the 1999 competition, plans to work for the company after graduating this spring. "The recruiting cycle is: You don’t wait until they come out with their diplomas in hand. That’s too late," Ferretti says.

But not everyone feels so pressured. The San Francisco office of Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum Inc. usually waits until April or May to determine its need for spring graduates. Each year, the office receives 100 resumes, plus books of resumes from design departments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, California Polytechnic State University and elsewhere.

And when sifting through resumes, Carolyn F. Friel, HOK’s human resources vice president, looks for internship experience, all but ignoring grade-point averages. "It doesn’t matter to me. If someone shows me a very good portfolio, I’m interested," she says. Several others also downplay grades. "A person can be an excellent engineer and not have a very high GPA," says Shirley E. Harrison, human-resources representative at Bechtel Corp., San Francisco, which hired 1,000 grads in the past three years.

Not all the smart grads get four-year degrees. Not all employers want to wait that long anyway. Anxious to groom budding construction superintendents, many look at two-year colleges. "The two-year grad is very marketable because we tie in the ‘hands on’ with the theoretical," says Stephen McKeegan, an associate professor of construction technology at the State University of New York’s Delhi College of Technology. "With the contacts that are available to our students, they never have any problems getting summer work–or permanent work for that matter," he adds.

Will the good times last much longer? "I tell students they’re living in a market that I’ve never experienced in my lifetime–and that may go away tomorrow," says Thomas R. Rogers, 49, chairman of the Construction Management Dept. at Northern Arizona University and a former vice president at Barton Malow Co. But even if the economy slows down more, he says, construction-related majors will continue to enjoy a strong job market because "the pipeline can’t meet the steady-state market, much less this boom market."

athleen M. Mahoney, a 21-year-old senior in traffic engineering, planned on going for a master’s degree right after she graduates in June. But to keep her options open, she sent out six resumes in January. With a 3.2 grade-point average and two years of engineering experience as an intern, she received three offers immediately–the lowest for $43,000 annually. "When I started interviewing, I got such an overwhelming response that it seemed best to begin working right away. The economy is so good," she says. So in July for an undisclosed sum, she plans to start as an engineer-in-training at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But as recently as two weeks ago, she continued to receive unsolicited calls from potential employers who saw her resume in a binder distributed by her college placement office at Polytechnic University in Farmingdale, N.Y.