Graduates: Bureaux have changed: Are you having difficulties finding work? Stephen Pritchard discovers that recruitment agencies have plenty to offer graduates searching for employment

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Employment agencies may not be top of the list for an ambitious graduate looking for work this summer. But with the job market remaining tough, an increasing number of students are finding that agencies can take their CVs to places that other networks cannot reach.

The agency sector consists of far more than the high street bureaux with their mainly administrative appointments, although graduates should not rule these out. An extensive network of specialist agencies covers areas from marketing to scientific analysis, and handles both temporary and permanent appointments. For graduates with a vocational degree, the specialist agency can be particularly useful.

A good recruitment agency can help in the job search in several ways, although the agencies themselves point out that they should be seen as only part of that process: they can supplement but not replace personal contacts and direct approaches to firms. Their main strength is their ongoing contacts with organisations holding vacancies. It is in the agency's interest to find work for their candidates, as it is the employers who pay their fees; by law, agencies may not charge fees to candidates for looking for, or finding them work.

Many graduates are unsure of what to expect from agencies, and of how best to approach them. The candidate must first decide whether to look for permanent or temporary work. There is nothing to lose from accepting a temporary registration.

Employers usually look more favourably on someone who is working, however menial the job. Furthermore, in some specialist areas where an agency may not handle many vacancies for raw graduates, relevant temporary work is a quick way to bridge the experience gap and obtain up-to-date references.

For permanent work, the agency acts as a clearing house for vacancies. The consultant matches CVs with appointments as they come in from employers. To do this quickly, they need to be confident in their candidates' abilities.

Normally, a new candidate will have an interview, and it is at this stage where graduates often come unstuck. They should adopt the same approach they would for a job interview. Most agencies have horror stories of otherwise talented graduates turning up for a meeting with a consultant in dirty jeans and a T-shirt; they are unlikely to be taken on.

As Trisha MacKinnon at Alfred Marks' London Wall branch explains: 'Candidates must come in to me looking smart. It is the first three minutes that will make an impression, and the first impression is the one that sticks.' Ms MacKinnon stresses the value of a well-produced CV, up to three pages long. 'There's no chance of a booking before the client sees the CV. It is most important in the initial stages.'

Once the candidate has been interviewed, and sometimes tested in computer skills, literacy or numeracy, the agency will add them to their database. For permanent positions, they will also be called for one, and often two, interviews with the client before being offered a position.

Clients may use agencies to fill vacancies in a hurry, so candidates must be contactable, including outside office hours, and able to attend interviews at short notice. It is not uncommon for an employer to want to see candidates within 48 hours of approaching an agency. From that point on, success depends on the individual's interview performance.

Agencies can have different attitudes towards the graduate market, so it is worth approaching several. Some deal only with experienced candidates for permanent posts; some handle occasional graduate vacancies, and others may make no distinction between experience gained at work or gained as part of a degree. For temporary administrative staff, computer literacy is a bonus, but office experience is less important.

According to Tinsley Lockhart, who runs Recruiting for Scotland, an Edinburgh-based agency, flexibility is the most important asset for a graduate. 'Agencies can play a part at a graduate level,' she says. 'It is a good way of looking for work if a graduate expresses willingness to try whatever the agency comes up with. The agency will have a broad base of contacts and a feel for the culture of a firm.'

Mrs Lockhart believes that administrative jobs, previously dismissed by graduates, are becoming more attractive. 'What was administration is now quite a good way into a company, because of the information technology element,' she says. 'It is a good way to understand what a company does.'

For design and publishing specialists Recruit Media, a lack of workplace experience is not a serious disadvantage to candidates. Voluntary work, college projects and vacation work could all help a candidate develop technical skills. Managing director Victoria Lubbock, often visits degree shows to spot talented new designers.

'From the client's point of view, status doesn't matter if they can do the job and have certain skill levels. Clients may not even need to see a CV for freelance work as we test all our candidates,' she says.

Cheshire-based MDA Group is placing a growing number of graduates, especially through its scientific and technical operation, MDA Technical Personnel. 'We are finding it an increasing part of our business,' explains Sid Morgan, group managing director. 'Candidates must be able to demonstrate the ability to cope with on-the-job training. People like graduates because they can demonstrate those skills. People tap into that ability to learn.'

Mr Morgan understands graduates' worries about taking a job for which they are over-qualified, but he advises them to see it as a gateway to work. 'Graduates must try to use every vehicle they can to find work. They can take something below their capability and work their way up. Sometimes they take some convincing to take a job as an analyst - quite often it isn't what they aspire too. But the ones that do can find that they are taken on as permanent staff and have gone quite high in a company. It turns into a job opportunity.'

His view is mirrored by Ms MacKinnon. 'You can start as a general clerk and go upwards,' she says. 'Clients will pick a graduate first; it opens up a lot for them. A high proportion of good temps gain permanent jobs with the same firm. Every temporary job is a potential permanent job.'

(Photograph omitted)