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Reasons for optimism in a tough graduate recruitment situation

A report released last week by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) appeared to pour cold water on optimism that the graduate recruitment market is recovering. The cut in public- sector recruitment looks certain to hit graduates hard and the AGR's report suggests other sectors, including bellwether areas like retail and IT, are reducing the number of graduates they are expecting to take on. Overall, the AGR forecasts a 7% cut in graduate jobs this year. While at Totaljobs.com we are seeing slight signs of improvement, we are also seeing the graduate recruitment situation remaining tough; I do however believe there are reasons for optimism.

Certainly the situation for many graduates since 2008 has been tough – much tougher than they had expected. Having decided to go to university before the recession, they did so expecting to enter graduate schemes or equivalent jobs upon graduation. However, after autumn 2008, many found that large companies had taken an axe to expensive graduate programmes and others had their graduate places rescinded or deferred for at least a year.  For those working a year, the repeat in 2009 was a body blow. The result has been that there is a glut of graduates out there – by some estimates up to half a million scrabbling for a job this summer.

Faced with a lack of formal graduate positions, university leavers have turned to a variety of other options to find work or delay the payment of student loans. Many have taken the decision to carry on studying, gaining postgraduate qualifications that are highly thought of by recruiters.  Some have chosen to take a gap year for travelling or charity work. A number have been forced into taking jobs that they did not think they would be doing or want to do but at least feel they are gaining invaluable experience and skills development in the workplace. Others have been forced into the benefits system.  With our research on Totaljobs.com earlier in 2010, over a third had claimed jobseeker’s allowance in the past year - half of these for longer than six months.

Though the situation is tough, it is not hopeless. I see this as an opportunity to refocus the minds of graduates and recruiters as to what they want in the job market and what skills are need to be successful when applying for a graduate role. The current situation means that, large employers particularly, can be selective as to who they will employ. Cherry-picking graduates with at least a 2:1 degree from a Russell Group university and at the very least some work experience is becoming the norm.  Graduates should take their cue from this – they need to get a good degree, in a relevant subject from a recognised university if they want to have good prospects, but, perhaps most important, they should also gain some work experience while studying at university.

HR experts within organisations also have a role to play. The demand for experience from recruiters is understandable but many graduates simply cannot afford to do the often unpaid or underpaid internships required. A greater number of internships with proper compensation is essential across a wider range of sectors if we are to increase the pool of graduates likely to secure employment.  Employers should also work more closely with universities to ensure graduates are better prepared for the world of work. A good example of this is an organisation called Skillset, which facilitates a partnership between employers in the creative sector and training institutions so that creative courses foster the skills needed, and prospective students are given advice about what they need to learn to make themselves more employable once they graduate.  

Despite this research from the AGR, the graduate employment situation is not as bad as some believe. A quick search on our site finds over 5,000 graduate vacancies and there is plenty of evidence that, while big graduate schemes are being culled or reduced, smaller companies, attracted by the better level of talent available for arguably less money, are beginning to snap up university leavers. But until the economy turns around in earnest, graduates will find the going tough and graduate employers will be in the enviable position where they can pick and choose.

Mike Fetters is graduate director at Totaljobs.com