To the best of my rapidly fading powers of recollection, the mood of job fairs held at my alma mater more resembled a room full of children awaiting booster shots than today's upbeat "chief people officers" attempting to attract potential employment candidates.

I once approached a table manned by a large pharmaceutical company and attempted to take some literature. Unfortunately, a Nurse Ratchett-type told me that they didn't have enough copies to last through the day and that she would appreciate it if I just glanced at it before putting it back.

I can't remember my exact response, but it more or less centered on instructing her to glance at the half of the "peace" sign I flashed her.

Not exactly an ideal first contact for prospective interviewees. Several minutes later, a representative from a large retail chain came across as only slightly less surly.

But that was then, and this is now.

As colleges across the nation undertake their annual ritual of emptying slush funds to pay for big-name speakers at commencement, CPA firms have, hopefully laid the groundwork to reel in the best and brightest from the Class of 2006.

And the most proactive firms start their recruiting process a lot earlier than April of a prospect's senior year.

As an example, the chief executive of a national firm recently visited our offices, and when asked when his firm begins mining prospective accounting graduates, he unhesitatingly replied, "Sophomore year."

By now everyone has seen myriad statistics and surveys about how accounting has become one of the "hot" professions, so I won't be redundant and list them all here. But unlike the job fairs of 30 years ago, today's prospects are often squired around and recruited by CPA firms like star athletes.

Although beginning salaries for accountants won't likely approach what former Southern Cal star running back and certain No. 1 draft pick Reggie Bush will receive once he signs a pro contract, they're still light years from the annual income I got my first year out of college -- even when indexed for inflation.

For example, according to the Robert Half Finance & Accounting 2005 Salary Guide survey, the range for an entry-level accountant with a maximum of one year of experience was $28,250 to $39,750 -- often contingent on the size of the firm. Just one year later, a similar pedigree commands a salary range of $35,500 to $52,000 -- roughly a 28 percent increase.

Once new hires are on board, accounting firms have gotten creative in implementing retention and work/life balance strategies -- including perks that would make past CPA generations cringe such as free concierge services, team-building "camps" in exotic destinations and regular office celebrations of events such as the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four gatherings or, as one firm has done, the TV reality show Survivor.

Accounting grads today are the fortunate beneficiaries of an ongoing demand and a finite supply chain. I doubt many have or are experiencing the root-canal experiences of my collegiate job fairs, and their first paychecks are surely much larger.

I always said I was born 25 years too early.

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