EVERY MONTH of recession brings gloomier news about the prospects for graduate employment. Can it be quite so awful?

As yesterday's Independent disclosed, 62 per cent of last summer's graduates had still not found permanent work by December. The jobs market looks no better this year, so there is a strong likelihood that most students now preparing for finals will have to follow up their academic efforts with a prolonged and arduous search for work.

Graduate unemployment has risen since the late Eighties, to nearly 10 per cent at the end of last year. But encouraging signs lie behind the figures. The huge increase in the number of graduates means that more students are chasing a shrinking number of vacancies: it is perhaps surprising, given those circumstances, that the level of graduate unemployment is not worse.

The real question is, what is happening to those new graduates - more than half now - who are not strictly out of work, but not yet in permanent employment?

In fact, most are in work or further study of some kind. Students who fail to find the job they really want at the first attempt are increasingly accepting lower-skilled temporary work for a year or so after they graduate while they continue to apply for jobs on their preferred career path.

That may not be an entirely bad thing. A large proportion of graduates who do find permanent work end up changing their jobs within a couple of years of leaving university anyway.

How many students in their final year are absolutely positive about the job they most want? Or, perhaps more importantly, how many know exactly what work they are most realistically qualified for? Spending six months to a year trawling the employment field and gathering other kinds of work experience may provide many graduates with a sounder foundation for their first committed job.

This year's edition of the annual What Do Graduates Do? publication, prepared by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (Agcas) and sponsored by Touche Ross, shows that the other option - taking a year out before trying again - is becoming less and less popular among recent graduates.

First, students are leaving university with higher debts, and need to start paying them off. Second, they want to be around during the year so that they do not miss any opportunities that may suddenly come up.

Prospective students should not imagine that the present problems make the value of a degree more questionable. More and more professions are becoming virtually exclusive graduate preserves, a trend which the Institute of Manpower Studies expects will continue. There is also no doubt that lifetime earnings for graduates remain well ahead of non-graduates.

As the Agcas report states, 'despite the downturn in the economy, most employers were determined to maintain their commitment to long-term graduate recruitment, and maintain links with higher education in preparation for the upturn'. It also points out that other recent surveys all draw the same conclusion: that most of those who were unemployed six months after finishing their degree had found work, or a place on a postgraduate course, within the following year.

The survey also shows that graduates of different disciplines are changing the kind of work they take up - partly because they are obliged to if they want to get started on a career. Taking a vocational subject is no longer the safe route that it used to be.

Between 1989 and 1991 the unemployment rate for computer scientists from university courses rose from 3.7 to 15.5 per cent; polytechnic computer scientists fared even worse. Nevertheless, more than half of those who study computing enter permanent employment quite quickly - and a high proportion of those find work in management services.

The unemployment rate among university-educated civil engineers rose from 1.7 per cent in 1990 to 6.9 per cent the following year. Graduates in the traditional science subjects, biology, chemistry and physics, saw unemployment rates running at 11 per cent - higher than the average: that may partly explain why increasing numbers of scientists are staying on to take further degrees, or entering teacher training.

However, graduates with a strong mathematical knowledge fare better, including those who studied economics. Most maths graduates go into financial work or computing - although they, too, are increasingly opting for teacher training, or further postgraduate study.

By contrast, a high proportion of physics graduates, or graduates in electronic engineering, traditionally seek research and design jobs, which are in shorter supply during a recession.

In the case of chemists, 1991 figures show that more graduates went into further study than into permanent employment: only 29 per cent in 1991, compared with 40 per cent into further study. In biology, it was similar: 28 per cent into permanent employment, 35 per cent into further study.

Andrew Whitmore, editor of What Do Graduates Do?, points out that the survey shows the dangers of assuming that the employment situation stays static. 'A lot can happen in three or four years, so there is much to be said for selecting a degree subject about which one has enthusiasm, resolving to take full advantage of the student experience in order to be able to offer a range of skills to future employers. Selecting a subject because of the supposed employability of its graduates can be a gamble.'

'What Do Graduates Do?' is available from Biblios Publishers' Distribution Services, Star Road, Partridge Green, West Sussex RH13 8LD, price pounds 3.95.

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