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Negotiating first job salary is a risk

The unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, and jobs are hard to come by, especially for recent college graduates with limited experience. So what happens when that first offer comes in and the salary or benefits aren't quite what you expected?

Many people's inclination is to accept it anyway.

"Given the job market, there's not much available. People are really excited to get anything," said Jillian Berman, who graduated from the University of Michigan this spring and has a paid internship this summer with a news outlet.

"Employers these days are feeling a little bit of entitlement," said Robert Orndorff, associate director of Career Services at Pennsylvania State University.

Each student's situation is different, of course, and the first thing career counselors do when a student comes in with a job offer is to ask a lot of questions, Orndorff said. How badly does the student really want this position? Does it match their values? Is it something they'd love to do? Are there any other job prospects?

As for negotiations, "There's not going to be a lot of room if there isn't a lot of experience," cautioned Jack Chapman, author of "Negotiating Your Salary, How to Make $1,000 a Minute."

That doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't try, depending on how much risk you can tolerate.

Those willing to take a risk often take a hard line: I'd like the job, but I need more money. The danger is that the employer can just turn to other candidates, Orndorff said.

At Penn State, he said, students generally are advised to pursue a softer approach, telling the employer they intend to take the job but would like to be paid more, and then outlining the reasons why. Be specific, he advised.

A third option is for students to ask a potential employer if they'd be willing to reconsider salary after six months or so. John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, calls that a "very reasonable approach."

"Get the job, go to work and prove yourself," he said. "Then ask for a raise because of your track record."

Zhenya Yoder, Bechtel Corp.'s manager of global compensation, said it's rare to see recent graduates try to negotiate starting salaries. If they do, "we'll listen to what the potential hire has to say." But she said Bechtel's salaries are competitive with others in the industry, and it's rare they'd say yes. "We believe that in our industry, we're an employer of choice," she said.

However, she said, there are other kinds of compensation besides salary, such as relocation costs. "We sometimes entertain special situations such as that," she said.

Employees who perform well and deliver in the first several years of their career likely will see pay increases, she added.

For job applicants for whom the prospect of higher wages down the road isn't enough, the key is to be prepared when entering negotiations.

Don't accept the job offer right away if you're not happy with the details, Challenger said. "Go home and think about it. Talk to them the next day or two days later," he said.

Take that time to research the job market, the cost of living at the job site and the average salary for such a position. There are a number of salary surveys available on the Web. When checking them out, consider whether they reflect starting salaries or the average pay for that position.

For example, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports by job on salaries offered to each year's graduating class. The survey this year found that liberal arts graduates received average offers of $39,527, while the average offer to engineering majors was $59,856. For all majors, the average salary offer was $50,462, up 5.9 percent from the previous year.

And, if you're still waiting for that job offer, here's another thing to consider: Many potential employers ask your salary requirements. Challenger recommends that you say "open." If you give them a range, say $50,000 to $60,000, they'll know that you'd take the $50,000, he said.

Berman said many people she knows just left the question blank. "They didn't want to price themselves out of a job," she said.

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