Bosses bank on brain power

As new technology has made many jobs more complex, greater intellectual skills are being needed in the workplace - and that's good news for graduates entering the job market. By Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
Job opportunities for graduates have never been so numerous or so varied. Until quite recently graduates were recruited into a restricted range of posts - mostly in university teaching, research institutions, the higher levels of the civil service, medicine and veterinary science. Today it is hard to think of a sector of employment which does not need graduates for many of its posts.

There has been a huge growth in jobs for specialists because many manual jobs have been replaced by technology, and most routine clerical work is now done by computers. Many existing jobs have become more complex and need greater intellectual skills. As a result many careers which until recently were almost exclusively school-leaver entry - such as chartered accountancy, librarianship, banking, journalism and personnel work - are now largely graduate entry.

Most graduate jobs used to be in big organisations, whether in large companies or the public sector. Today, increasing numbers of graduates find excellent management and technical opportunities in small and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs). These smaller employers are often overlooked by finalists looking for their first career post. This is a pity because the experience you can get in a smaller organisation is often broader than you get in a large one.

If you are set upon joining a big company management training scheme, you need to plan well ahead. There are far fewer openings on these schemes because employers have shed many layers of middle management and so need fewer managers. Competition is fierce and entry standards are tough. You will need a 2.1 degree plus good interpersonal, teamworking and communication skills. Often you should also have gained some useful work experience during your degree course.

Graduate jobs can be classed into two broad groups - those where the employer has a planned requirement and is recruiting well ahead and those in which the employer is recruiting to fill an immediate need.

The recruitment of graduates for planned vacancies, including those for big company management training schemes, usually starts in the autumn and is usually completed before one's finals. These vacancies are likely to be advertised in one or both of the two major career directories - GET and Prospects - which are available free at your university careers service.

If you wait until you have completed your finals before starting your job search, you will miss many of the opportunities available, including virtually all management traineeships.

Employers recruiting to fill immediate vacancies tend to be SMEs, large organisations which under-estimated their needs, or those who have failed to fill all their vacancies. They may advertise in the fortnightly Prospects Today (available free from your university careers service), a national broadsheet newspaper, or if the employer is recruiting locally, in a regional newspaper. Obviously there is no point in applying for these until after your finals because you will be needed almost at once.

Many undergraduates do not opt for a particular career until they are close to graduation, and sometimes even afterwards. To some extent this is understandable. You will develop new interests and learn a lot about yourself during your course, and your initial career ambitions may well change.

Because you change a lot during your course you can lose your initial enthusiasm for your degree subject. Many undergraduates worry that they will be trapped by their degree subject into work which no longer appeals to them. There is no need to worry. Around half of all graduate vacancies are open to any discipline. So you do not have to follow a career related to your degree subject. Apart from specific vocational subjects, such as medicine and engineering, employers are less interested in the knowledge you have acquired than in the intellectual skills your degree has taught you. It is your trained mind that will be in demand.

With the massive increase in the numbers graduating each year, and little growth in "traditional" graduate jobs, it is sometimes suggested that there is a real risk of becoming under-employed in a job which could be done equally well by a school leaver. However, school leavers are used to working under close supervision, graduates are expected to be self- starters. This means they can develop the jobs in ways that school leavers cannot, and put their own stamp on them.

Some of the newer graduate employers, such as some SMEs, have little experience in using and developing graduates. This means they can sometimes give their graduates too little or too much initial responsibility. Be prepared to discuss what will be expected of you at interview. Many existing managers are non-graduates and may not know what you are capable of.

There are of course some dead-end jobs. When job seeking you will need to be selective. If you find yourself in the wrong job, do everything as well as you can and use it as a learning opportunity before moving on after a year or two.

Finally, when you start work, what can you expect to earn as a newly qualified graduate? The Association of Graduate Recruiters forecasts that those starting jobs this year will get a median salary of pounds 17,400, although one in 10 employers would pay pounds 21,000 or more and one in ten pounds 14,500 or less.

When you do eventually get your degree, graduate starting salaries should have increased by about the same rate as average earnings.