The job market for graduates with master's degrees in business is strengthening rapidly after several sluggish years, according to a survey of corporate recruiters by the Graduate Management Admission Council.

And starting salaries are climbing, too.

“Everything is definitely better than last year,” says David Wilson, the council's president and chief executive. “Bottom line is, every way you look at it, the boom is back on the MBA.”

That news sits well with MBA students, including SMU's Thomas Mitchell.

Mitchell, like many other prospective graduates nationwide, hopes his MBA will give him that extra edge employers seek.

“The closer I get to graduation, the more attractive of a candidate I am,” says Mitchell, 26, who is still entertaining job offers.

With more than 416,000 jobs added in January and February, this year's 1.4 million college graduates should enjoy the best entry-level job market since the dot-com collapse in 2001, according to an annual outlook released by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

“The market for grad students – especially those with marketable skills in the private sector – is great,” says John A. Challenger, the consultancy's chief executive.

“There are fewer MBA candidates out there than there were five years ago because companies are hiring more,” says American Airlines Inc. spokesman Tim Wagner, whose company sent recruiters to 15 schools this year.

Many employers are looking for well-rounded MBA candidates.

A majority of survey respondents said MBAs receive sufficient training in such “hard” skills as quantitative reasoning and analytical thinking, but many lack “soft” skills such as leadership, interpersonal and communication abilities.

“The notion is that having the soft skills doesn't guarantee you the job, but not having them puts you at real risk of not even getting an offer,” says Wilson.

“I want work-life balance and an interesting and challenging job,” says SMU student Mitchell. “It's a whole package thing. You want to make sure you are going to be happy.”

But what's attractive to most is the job's starting annual salary.

“Yes, salary is up there,” Mitchell confirms.

Recruiters are prepared to pay higher salaries to MBAs this year than in 2005.

The average starting MBA base salary for 2006 is $80,809, a 3.5 percent increase from $78,040 in 2005.

© 2006, The Dallas Morning News.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.