Job prospects for the graduates of the future are extremely good. However, it is important to realise that the graduate job market is changing in a number of ways. The past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. Those who now plan to enter university or college face very different prospects from their parents.

Although a third of school leavers now enter Higher Education - more than ever before - employers want even more to do so. The Confederation of British industry (CBI) recently said it would like to see 40 per cent entering higher education. Although some graduates have difficulty finding jobs, employers report a shortage of good graduates. They no longer select graduates solely on the basis of a good degree and a pleasant personality. They look for work related skills. What is happening? And how can you take advantage of these changes?

Our economy is going through a revolution as profound as the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Our growth industries are now those that either produce goods which exploit the latest science and technology or which provide services such as health care, retailing, tourism, security, financial services, entertainment and public administration. Computers are increasingly used in every aspect of the world of work - including product design, controlling manufacturing processes, training people, calculating staff wages, keeping customer records and much else.

With these changes many manual staff have been replaced by technology and most clerical workers by computers. On the other hand, the growing use of these complex technologies and systems is creating many jobs for specialists of various kinds. We are moving from a skill-based to a knowledge- based economy. As a result there is a growing need for intellectual skills. Employers need people who are good at gathering and analysing information and problem solving. In the past many major graduate recruiters were big companies taking on large numbers of management trainees. However, half of Britain's employers have significantly flattened or "de-layered'' their management structures since 1990, and many more intend to do so before the turn of the century. Consequently they need far fewer managers - and so management trainees. Graduates are still recruited as management trainees, but in far smaller numbers.

Big companies also have less people to manage. Organisations used to be pyramid shaped, with the chief executive at the top and the lowest grade of staff forming the largest tier at the bottom. As junior jobs have been replaced by technology, the bottom layers have shrunk and some organisations have already becoming pear-shaped - with the bulge at the level of technical and professional specialists. It is for this level that most graduates are now recruited, trained and developed. Most graduates are hired directly for specific jobs rather than as "trainees'' and receive training while doing the job. Growing numbers of medium and small employers depend on the new technologies and systems, so they too are employing graduates in ever increasing numbers.

Graduates increasingly go into jobs which were once almost exclusively school leaver entry - such as retailing. This has led to fears that their studies will be wasted and that they will be underemployed. However, as once mundane jobs became more complex, they need the skills which graduates can bring to them. This is why many careers which used to be open to school leavers, such as accountancy, banking and journalism, are now mainly graduate entry. This trend will continue. Moreover, unlike school leavers, graduates are expected to be self-starters who can work with little supervision. This means they can develop their jobs in ways which school leavers cannot. Soon almost all posts in management, the professions and in science and technology will be the preserve of graduates. Within a few years most non-graduates are likely to be stuck in relatively mundane low-level jobs. If some graduates do temporarily find themselves in dead-end jobs, they should learn as much as possible and move on.

The way work is done is also changing. There is a move to organising much work into team projects. A team is formed at the start of a project, and dissolved when it ends. People are chosen to join a team on the basis of the skills and expertise needed to do the job. People move from one project to another and may work on two or more simultaneously. Team leaders are selected for having expertise which is particularly appropriate to the specific project so a leader of one team may be an ordinary member of the next.

Jobs are becoming less rigidly structured. As individuals gain experience on various types of project, and become more expert they will be better rewarded. They will be valued for their multi-dimensional expertise and for being good team workers. Although vocational degrees are highly valued for their technical content, half of all graduate vacancies are open to any discipline - and the proportion seems to be growing. However, it is helpful to study what employers see as one of the intellectually rigorous disciplines. These not only include science and engineering subjects, but also such disciplines as classics, economics, linguistics, history and philosophy. Expertise based on "facts'' you have learned will become less important in the future. With up-to-the-instant information increasingly available and easy to access through worldwide databases using PCs or laptop computers, experts will not be people with good memories but the people who know how best to access, interpret and apply database information to solve a wide range of problems.

Another big change in the world of work is that few employers can now offer graduates, or anyone else, a job for life. Not only are there unlikely to be enough career development opportunities in a single organisation, but some employers already offer contracts that are either for a fixed term or to complete a specific project. Career development will increasingly depend on the individual building up a personal portfolio of marketable expertise and skills and moving from one organisation to another.

What are the implications of all these changes? Certainly anyone with the aptitude to earn a degree should do so. But a degree on its own is not enough. Recruiters now seek extra skills in their graduate recruits. Because these are useful in any type of job they are known as "transferable skills''. The main ones are business awareness, good written and oral communications, team-working, the ability to prioritise work, and effective time management. These skills are built into some degree courses, but so far only a minority. Vacation work, job placements during sandwich courses, helping with a family business, organising student events, will all help to teach these skills.

When the time comes to conduct a job search future graduates should look beyond the traditional graduate careers to give themselves the widest choice and least competition. They should apply early - no later than the beginning of their final year. And they should be prepared for a lifetime of learning and broadening their expertise.

Comments