Fast Track: Adapt and survive

Graduates want a job, but they also want a life, and they expect employers to back them. Or else they'll be off. By Meg Carter
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The Independent Culture
Both graduates and employers must adapt their tactics to take into account the changing priorities and expectations of college leavers now entering the workforce, each was warned this week. On the one hand, employers are being urged to adapt to the new approach to working life of a new generation of graduate recruits - known as "Graduate Xers". But graduates must also modify their approach, it seems, if they are to secure their chosen career.

The call comes in Should I Stay or Should I Go?, a study in graduate retention published by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) at the start of its annual conference this week. The report, by Dr Jane Sturges and Professor David Guest of the Department of Organizational Psychology at London University's Birkbeck College, highlights the growing challenge employers face in satisfying their graduate recruits and encouraging them to stay with their company rather than lose them to a rival employer.

Today's graduates are disenchanted by employers not living up to the hard sell of graduate recruitment adverts and want greater honesty, the study suggests. They also expect a good balance between work and their personal life. And while increasingly independent and removed from the "job for life" culture, they demand support in developing a career rather than "just a job".

"One factor is that younger graduates are a generation who have grown up watching their parents struggle with the pressures of career and personal life and who, perhaps, have not done a very good job," says Carl Gilliard, the AGR's chief executive. He suggests that employers should respond by offering increased flexibility and a commitment to help graduates develop the career management skills they need. This would build graduate recruits' loyalty. "As employers, we do need to listen to what graduates are saying and respond - if only because we can't afford not to."

What confuses today's graduates, says the report's co-author, Dr Sturges, is "rhetoric" concerning the need "to manage" your career. "Employers tell graduates that they need to manage their career, but graduates don't know what this means and lack the skills to do so."

This point is highlighted by Dr Peter Hawkins, co-founder and adviser to Liverpool University's Graduates into Employment Unit, who publishes advice for graduates on how to get the career they want and manage it over the long term in a new book, The Art of Building Windmills, also out this week. Over the longer term, he says, graduates wanting to take greater control of their careers will have to develop new attitudes and skills to achieve the balance and freedom they want. "Constant change means few career paths are now as narrowly defined as many once were," he says.

Indeed, technology, global markets and changing work patterns have changed the nature of the workforce which is now expected to be self-reliant, flexible, multi-skilled, IT-competent and team aware. "Because many job titles have remained unchanged, it's often easy to overlook the extent of these changes," Dr Hawkins explains. "But to stay employable in the future, you need to adapt to new roles, gain new skills and master new ways of building a career."

In The Art of Building Windmills, Dr Hawkins sets out a range of career tactics that will become increasingly important. These range from identifying the skills you have and need, and identifying where you want to go, to recognising hidden opportunities and selling yourself more effectively. "Today's graduates want the work-life balance, honesty and control highlighted by the AGR. But if they are to achieve and maintain the career they want on their own terms, they must learn a higher level of career management and self reliance," he says.

"Fewer than 20 per cent of graduates have the tactics they need. The vast majority aren't aware what motivates them, have no sophisticated action plan or know where they want to go, and are no good at networking."

A key cause is lack of focus. "Too many expect opportunities to fall into their laps," Dr Hawkins believes. "The sad fact is that most spend more time planning their holiday each year than their career."

Key areas to develop are understanding what motivates and inspires you; recognising barriers which prevent you from moving forward and - once you're in work - making that job work for you.

"Graduates must understand that to be employed is to be at risk whereas to be employable is to be secure," he adds. A commitment to developing skills is an important part of remaining "employable", as is an eye for new opportunities and a willingness and ability to build, develop and exploit a network of acquaintances, associates and colleagues to further your career.

Dr Hawkins outlines the art of "action thinking" - positioning yourself for success, developing the mental attitude that will enable you to spot the right opportunity and act upon it, understand the challenges, seek help, set realistic time scales and maintain morale. It may sound like hard work, but treating yourself as a business and working towards your goal as you would a task in a job will pay dividends, he says.

Another skill, Dr Hawkins adds, is understanding the "secret jobs market": "Many careers are shaped by chance. It depends on the jobs they fall into first." Indeed, the jobs we really want are not those we see advertised. In fact, Dr Hawkins claims, 80 per cent of opportunities are buried out of sight, many with smaller, less well-known businesses. Learn to identify these, he says, and you can avoid competing in an already over-crowded job race.

`The Art of Building Windmills' is published by Liverpool University's Graduates into Employment Unit

Job Trends

Graduate salaries: Predicted to be up 5.5 per cent this year

Starting salary: The average for graduates is now pounds 17,400

Skills: Those most highly valued by employers are: team working; interpersonal skills; motivation and enthusiasm

Vacancies: On average 67.7 people apply for every graduate vacancy.Twenty five per cent of employers expect a shortfall in recruitment this year