Long lines of résumé hawkers, shoulder-to-shoulder human traffic jams and an upbeat mood signaled the return of economic good times, at least for freshly-minted engineers looking for their first jobs after graduation.
Hungry to snap up next spring's crop of graduating engineers, a record 373 employers set up booths at the McKimmon Center in Raleigh Tuesday for the first of two days of N.C. State University's biannual engineering career fair.
As one of the largest career fairs in the nation, the N.C. State engineering show-and-tell is regarded by some as a barometer of the technology employment market.
The youngish throng of some 4,000 job seekers who packed the McKimmon Center marked a record turnout, too, with some traveling hundreds of miles for the chance to audition before the likes of Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Boeing, Volvo and other blue-chip corporations.
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"I haven't been to a career fair in six years," said Tom DeVore, a Ph.D. in physics who recently received a layoff notice from GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy in Wilmington. "It's crowded. Lots of students, lots of experience here, too."
A midcareer job seeker, DeVore, 36, was in the minority at the McKimmon Center. His position is being eliminated because of a downturn in demand for nuclear services from GE-Hitachi's Japan market.
In the aftermath of the great recession, technology job fairs attracted streams of middle-aged engineers and programmers whose positions had been jettisoned or whose companies collapsed.
But Tuesday's job fair belonged to the 20-somethings. Most of these job-seekers were still in high school when the nation's economy imploded six years ago. They weathered the painfully glacial economic recovery in the cocoon of a college classroom, and are the first generation of job applicants without direct experience of the crash.
Among the more singular attendees was Alexander Peck, a 17-year-old senior who attends the Franklin Academy charter school in Wake Forest. Peck has already developed his own business, MegaCraft Network, which offers a plug-in for the popular Minecraft computer game, and was nosing around the McKimmon Center for internship opportunities.
"I tossed out a few résumés to see where I could fit in," Peck said.
Engineering remains one of the most employable of career choices, with about 50 percent of N.C. State engineering students consistently reporting they have accepted a full-time position before even graduating. That's up from 31 percent in N.C. State's Spring 2011 survey, back when engineers were re-emerging from the long shadow of the recession.
When the economy cratered, the number of participants in N.C. State's engineering job fair correspondingly plummeted from 333 companies in the spring of 2008 to 187 in the fall of 2009. Participation has steadily grown since bottoming out.
Entry-level starting salaries for a 22-year-old engineer run as high as $100,000 a year in the petroleum industry, and many engineers can expect to start out their careers pulling down at least $60,000.
Employers at the fair, which concludes Wednesday, included those with "engineering" embedded in their names, while others have engineering in their core mission: construction, manufacturing, electronics, energy and steel were heavily represented.
But the event also offered a far-flung sampling of non-engineering industries that depend on engineers to design products and optimize business processes: Allstate Insurance, Bank of America, Bloomberg, CarMax, Credit Suisse, Humana, National Security Agency and Nimble Storage, among others.
According to the career chatter at the McKimmon Ceneter, the engineering field has subtly shifted since the heady days before the economic meltdown. Employers increasingly demand more than grade point averages and expect a well-rounded applicant. Extracurricular activities, such as community service and work projects, now bespeak future leadership potential.
"It's a little more personality-based now, not just the courses you take but how you present yourself," said Nicole Mathis, an N.C. State senior in biological and agricultural engineering. "Extracurriculars really set you apart now."
Mathis, 21, noted that in addition to serving as the secretary of the student chapter of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, she volunteers with a local community garden and is involved with N.C. State's Outdoor Adventures program.
ExxonMobil recruiter John Chambard, whose regular job is a liability specialist for the petroleum company in Belmont, Texas, said ExxonMobil is hiring about 400 engineering students this year nationally. He was one of several recruiters who emphasized the theme of well-roundedness.
"If someone came with a 4.0 GPA but didn't demonstrate leadership, or didn't have an internship, they're probably not going to get a job with us," Chambard said. "We're asking them to demonstrate how you're becoming a leader."
Elizabeth Thomas, senior staffing manager at Sensus, the Raleigh-based smart meter company, put it more succinctly: "We want a real human being."