Signing bonuses. They were the norm during this year's recruiting season, where managers and other suits treated prospective stars like royalty, all in an effort to lure them onto the team. Not the basketball or football team. The engineering team! Officials from several college campuses report that 1997 was one of the biggest years ever in terms of corporate recruitment activity. "We had more than 700 companies here talking to graduates," says Carole Ferrari, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It was our busiest year of at least the last five," she adds. So many companies wanted to talk to graduates that Lance Choy, of the Stanford University career planning and placement center, told The San Jose Mercury News the school had to turn away 300 to 400 companies for lack of space. Recruiting activity was so intense at the University of California at Davis that one professor told the paper he began including in his class instructions on how to deal with bidding wars. And how high were the bids this year? Consider this: At MIT, the average offer to new mechanical engineering baccalaureates was $43,700. Those earning doctorates were looking, on average, at offers of $70,900. Graduates of the school's electrical engineering program received salary offers that averaged $45,300 for a bachelor's degree. Not bad, considering that the average salary of respondents to this year's Design News career and salary survey is $55,000. The reason for the recruitment rush is Economics 101: supply and demand. Nationwide, unemployment is down. The economy is growing, yet, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of engineering graduates dropped 18 percent between 1986 and 1994. It's a seller's market. That reality, plus the many challenging design projects in the aerospace, automotive, medical, and other industries, makes this a great time to be an engineer.