As mobiles, landlines, the Internet, computers and TV converge, a challenging future lies ahead, writes Meg Carter
Latest research showing that all four British mobile phone networks signed up record numbers of new customers during the first three months of this year is further proof - as if it were needed - of how dynamic the rapidly expanding world of telecommunications has become.

Deregulation of telephone service providers, growing interest in the Internet and the convergence of telephone, television and computer technology has also fuelled significant expansion in the sector - resulting in a rapid increase in opportunities for graduates seeking a challenging, fast-paced career.

Indeed, rival businesses are extremely keen, not only to sign up the best young talent, but also to persuade them to stay. An essential first step, then, is getting to grips with the different companies in the sector and their different approaches to recruitment and career development.

The largest player in the British market is undoubtedly BT, employing about 120,000 people all over the UK. It currently takes on 600 graduates a year - around three quarters of whom will fill vacancies in technical departments, research and development.

"Many graduates will go straight into our systems engineering divisions or our software engineering sites," says BT resourcing solutions manager Jean Waring. These divisions focus on developing new products, networks and customer information and billing services.

Alternatively, they might join as a line or field manager on BT's engineering side. For these positions, the company seeks technology qualifications and people management skills. Others will join departments more closely associated with the running of the business, such as human resources, sales and marketing or finance.

Training varies extensively, but all recruits are expected to hit the ground running from day one. "Ours is a two-tier system - all graduates will participate in a local development training programme relevant to the particular department they join as well as a corporate training programme," Ms Waring says.

Promotion can be quick for the best. "If someone is delivering well but requires more experience in a particular role, our system is flexible enough to give them this as well as the chance to increase their salary," she adds.

One way graduates can stand out early on is to take up one of 700 work placements before leaving university. "We always prefer people with practical experience," Ms Waring says.

Graduate starting salaries at BT start at around pounds 18,000 plus a range of benefits and other rewards BT builds in to staff remuneration packages, such as bonuses and discounts.

Rival telecoms business Nortel has also significantly stepped up its graduate recruitment in the past three years and this year expects to take on 250 in the UK. Unlike BT it is placing a far heavier emphasis on placements. "Since 1998, we've expanded our industrial placement scheme to create a feeder pool into our graduate recruitment - matching graduate positions with placement opportunities," explains Nortel's graduate recruitment manager, Eva Lundahl.

Graduates are recruited centrally but will then move out into roles across 20 different skill areas. Most will have engineering qualifications and work in the technology side of the business; less than ten per cent will join sales and marketing, finance, customer services, human resources or business management departments.

As with BT, there is no single graduate training programme for new recruits. Depending on the department they join, some will participate in rotational placements while others will be specifically trained in a particular role.

After their first year, all graduates attend a graduate development workshop to assess their performance and identify future career goals, Ms Lundahl says, and most will have completed their "graduate traineeship" within two years. "A particular appeal of working for Nortel is its international scope and focus," she adds.

In contrast, Cable & Wireless has only recently introduced a graduate recruitment scheme in the UK - taking on about 30 a year. "Unlike the mass graduate recruitment other companies do, our focus is on the individual with personal attention a key factor affecting our graduate and management retention rate," says C&W graduate scheme manager, Denise Cording.

Graduates are recruited centrally into four streams - marketing, engineering, finance and human resources. The scheme runs for two years - three for financial roles - and involves rotational placements in different, related departments. An emphasis is placed on acquiring additional relevant professional qualifications, she adds.

"The whole ethos behind our approach is to recruit high calibre people able to take on business-critical roles within two years of joining," Ms Cording adds. Those completing the scheme, which has a starting salary this year of pounds 18,250, can expect to be one position away from management at the end of it.

Other companies in the market tend to take on fewer graduates still. But, as all career advisers will tell you, this is one industry that can only grow.