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Signing bonuses become latest perk for computer-savvy graduates

Signing bonuses, once the sole province of pro athletes and corporate big shots, are suddenly finding their way into the back pockets of wet-behind-the-ears undergraduates -- at least those with computer talents. Desperate to restock their growing companies from a limited pool of young talent, many computer and engineering firms have turned to the signing bonus as a bona fide recruiting tool, a way to get a leg up in a fiercely competitive field.

Engineering Career Services (ECS) Director Sandra Arnn says she was accustomed to hearing occasional stories of signing bonuses offered to some of the college's blue-chip students. But beginning last fall, the stories became so common that she added the question to placement surveys of graduating seniors. The results: roughly two-thirds of all students with electrical and computer engineering degrees accepted a signing bonus from their new employer. And roughly one-third of all engineering graduates -- out of more than 400 surveyed for the fall and spring semester -- reported receiving such a perk. The up-front bonuses ranged from $2,000 to $10,000, and averaged in the $5,000 range.

"What's really remarkable is it's not just computer companies," Arnn says. "Almost every Fortune 500 company is in need of engineers who have a computer background, and they're willing to pay signing bonuses to attract them."

Some such opportunities were discussed Sept. 15-18 in Engineering Hall, where more than 200 employers were represented at Career Connection 1998, the 13th annual job fair co-sponsored by Engineering Career Services and the Polygon Engineering Council. ECS added a fourth day to this year's event to accommodate more than 30 companies on a waiting list. Additionally, this was the first year in which employers were invited to conduct mock interviews for students. About 120 students took advantage of this opportunity to refine their interviewing skills.

Like the signing bonus trend, starting salaries are also marching upward for engineers and computer scientists. For 1997-98, the average starting salary for chemical engineers was $45,900; for computer scientists, $43,750; for electrical and computer engineers, $44,000; and for industrial engineers, $41,750.