It's a great time to be graduating from college.

Just ask 23-year-old Purdue University graduate John Ciasto, who's had his job with a large wastewater construction firm since last June - six months before his diploma was in hand. He brings to the jobsite a degree in building construction management and - like many of today's young, best and brightest - an eagerness to prove himself to the industry.

When Ciasto was approached by Indianapolis-based Bowen Engineering Corp., he was impressed with the benefits packages available to its employees. He was offered a car allowance, profit-sharing options, a cafeteria plan and a salary above the national average. He chose Bowen because it was going faster and farther.

"They keep their employees up to focus with training and software technology," Ciasto says. "It's all about the employees. If you work with them and help them, they'll stick with you."

It used to be the employer who asked all the questions on an interview. But today it's the students who are asking companies, "Where do you see your company in five years? Ten years? Where is the business' potential for growth?" It is the company who must sell its wares to the applicant if it wants to retain the best and brightest employees.

Times Have Changed:

No more than 10 years ago, a college student staring the real world in the face would begin to sweat as graduation approached. Would there be a place for him in the work force? Would he make the money he deserved? Would there be job satisfaction or security? Ten years ago, job hunting was a brutal process of rejected resumés, interviews and long waits in front of a silent phone. It could take months, even years, before his diploma and several semesters of higher education were put to good use.

If he had aspirations of forging a way in the mechanical industry, his chances were even slimmer. To make your way in the trade you had to start at the bottom, earn your keep in the dirt, pay your dues like everyone else. But now it's a whole new ballgame.

"There's been an interesting shift now," says Purdue professor John Koontz. "There's a blend of old and new school on the jobsite that wasn't there before. It's a good mix."

Blame it on the labor shortage, but today's students are a hot commodity. And they are also in a position to be even more selective, picky and discriminating about their employer of choice.

"Students today want challenges and opportunites - responsibility. They don't want to be grunts, they want to be in charge," Koontz says. "They're being offered $43,000 or $50,000 and they're holding out for more."

But is it just the promise of a large salary (the national average of $36,000-$37,000 has risen a steady $1,000 a year for the last few years), or is it more these students are hoping for? And what does this mean for the contractors seeking to recruit them?

Students are looking for a computer-driven, high-tech work environment. They want progressive-thinking companies. "If a company doesn't have an accessible Web page, the students disqualify them immediately. They don't want to work for a Stone Age company," Koontz warns. How a company takes care of its employees weighs very heavily with them as well. They want job security, benefits and programs geared toward their well being.

And they want to continue to learn. With high schools shunning the trades, the only options today's students have is to go to college - to get a degree. With backgrounds steeped in continuous training and education, graduates moving out into the work force want to know that employers can provide further learning opportunities for them. Companies that spend money on education are investing in their employees. "It sends a strong message to these students. Education is not a cost, it becomes an investment in a company's future," Koontz says.

Ready For The Future:

Ciasto began an interest in the industry like many others who have "always liked to build things." A nonambitious high school career prompted the "what do you want to do with your life" speech from his father, right before he chose Purdue University's Building Construction Management Program.

This is not a holding tank for the high school "troublemakers" of the past. The program is a well-rounded education of work-intensive classes, hands-on labs and internships. It requires 800 hours of construction work experience to be completed before graduation, work which could include anything from a laborer with a shovel to an estimator.

Most students, including Ciasto, work in the summer for various construction firms in the Indianapolis area. The program stresses that the students find jobs with different firms each time, so they can see the way different companies get the job done.

"It gives the students a hands-on application of what they're learning in the classroom," says Koontz. "It also makes them stick around. The Purdue placement program has a high retainage rate, very little turnover."

In years past, only engineering degrees were offered. And there are still few universities to adopt curriculum changes. "It doesn't have to be how smart you are anymore. People who can't make the grade in engineering, but still enjoy its technical aspects, find a friend in a curriculum such as Purdue's and become successful."

So successful that two-year alumni are out of school and managing big-time projects for big-time companies. Mechanical contracting majors are becoming project managers quicker than general contracting majors - and it's all due to the new way employers view education.

Purdue junior Nick Funkhouser will be next semester's president of the University's Student Chapter of the MCAA. He, too, is pursuing a degree in building construction management with a minor in mechanical, but he knew back in high school that he would go into the industry.

"Construction is more hands-on, more field work than just engineering. I don't want to be stuck behind a desk," he states.

"The internship opportunities have been excellent. They've given me a lot of responsibility on the jobsite."

The company he is with now, Freitag-Weinhardt Mechanical Constructors, sent him to Colorado during winter break for training on QuickPen and Estimation. Duties at this internship include working on bids and submittals, estimating, and tool and equipment management. "The bosses are fair. They check up on you, answer questions and make sure you're doing your job. It's a great learning experience. I've learned how an estimate comes together."

But it's not all fun in the sun. The courses students in Purdue's Construction Management Program have to complete include mechanical estimation classes, where groups of students work together on one bid throughout an entire semester - taking it from start to finish - and comparing final numbers with the class.

A course in supervision has the students teaching and training the class for an hour and a half on various topics - OSHA regulations, safety precautions, etc. They also learn technical skills in lab electives such as welding, plumbing and pipefitting, fire protection, and mechanical and electrical classes.

Most importantly, the program requires communication courses, in which the students learn human relations, networking and management techniques.

Koontz says that today's contractors are looking for work ethic rather than skill and technical knowledge. They're looking for people skills. Most of the time a project manager deals with people and projects - like the conductor of an orchestra rather than an iron-fisted tyrant. "Students who've had a summer of experience can be taught skills and techniques, because they've had some exposure to the jobsite. It's a rude awakening if you just have technical skills as a project manager."

Likes & Dislikes:

It's hard to be the new kid on the block, but the students interviewed said they hadn't run into very many problems with co-workers on the jobsite because of their lack of field experience.

"There may be one guy who gives me trouble and treats me like a rookie because I didn't work my way up through the trades like he did," says Funkhouser. "But I'm the first to admit he's right. I agree you should have field experience in your background."

Their lack of experience was one of the few dislikes the students named of working in construction. Because many of the companies have union work rules, some students didn't see much "in the dirt" field work. But the students are more than willing to do what it takes to get the job done. They're looking for companies that will allow them to put their "bookworm knowledge" to use on the jobsite.

The students also disliked "petty tasks." If a company placed them in an unchallenging, undiversified job, they felt their skills were being wasted.

"One contractor had me put notebooks together all summer," Ciasto remembers with a grimace. "He never gave me a straight answer about my job, there was no variety. It wasn't challenging at all."

According to Koontz, students want to be given responsibilities. They want to be given the opportunity to prove themselves in the work environment. "Really smart contractors are getting creative when recruiting college graduates. They're putting a sense of ownership in them, making them feel part of the company."

Industry Education Trends:

The Mechanical Contractors Association of America has seen the light and is forging ahead with its National Education Initiative (NEI) to make sure its members commit to a "lifetime of learning."

"It used to be that the one with the most toys won the game," says Director of Career Development Dennis Langley. "Now it's the one with the best educated employees who wins."

Through a partnership with the University of Texas in Austin, MCAA's Institute for Project Management (IPM) uses case studies to teach students to work on small project teams with peers from noncompetitive markets. It's offered twice a year and is taught by MCAA industry experts and university faculty.

Professor Koontz heads the IPM program's course development division, and will be leaving Purdue to take a full-time position as national director of education for the NEI in the spring. "When you make your employees smarter, they become more productive, efficient and confident," Koontz says.

At its annual convention and business meeting in San Diego Feb. 20-24, MCAA will unveil its two-phase education program.

Set to begin in May, but possibly starting as early as April, NEI joins on-site, live training from nationally regarded faculty, and internet schooling to provide entry- level professional education to MCAA members. The courses will be delivered locally, to minimize time away from the job.

The organization has seen success with its Student Chapters of MCAA, with the first started at Purdue in 1993. It has grown to include more than a dozen universities.

Student chapters allow mechanical engineering students a chance to increase interaction between faculty and MCAA members. Local contractors of universities with these chapters have seen a rise in their student recruitment numbers by getting more involved. They invite students to their sites, give guest lectures and offer internships.

"We want bright, sharp young people," says Langley. "We want to get them familiar in the industry, and we want to show them that we will train and educate them. That's absolutely crucial to the survival of the industry."

Also at the February convention, seminars will be offered to members on recruiting at the college level, how to participate in job fairs and how to hire year-round. Most of the top graduates are hired months, sometimes years, before graduation. It pays to start early, Langley says. Recruiting college students should be a priority for contractors, or the industry will be missing an essential part of the modern work environment.

Graduates bring to the jobsite a basic course in estimating and mechanical design, the ability to form relationships with foremen, supervisors and clients, knowledge of methods and materials, basic contract law, and account management. All they need is a place and a chance to establish themselves - preferably with a forward-looking construction firm that will care about them as much as they care about getting the job done right.