Graduates: Fewer forms and greater thought: As the 1993 milk round looms, Philip Schofield suggests that targeted applications and meticulous research will serve candidates well

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The Independent Online
IMPORTANT graduate employers who traditionally make milk round visits are predicting that the number of vacancies for newly qualified graduates will be slightly down on 1992. As graduate numbers are likely to be up by 14 per cent on last year, this is not good news. But the position may not be as bleak as it looks.

On current forecasts more than four out of five of this year's graduates should be in work by the end of the year. And many employers expect to increase graduate vacancies as soon as they are satisfied that we are emerging from the recession. If an upturn occurs it could be significant, as employers tend to under-recruit in recession and over-recruit in times of high demand.

This year's milk round will be affected not only by the recession but by long-term trends. Many employers are cutting out layers of management and so reducing the number of posts traditionally filled by graduates. They may, however, take more into posts previously filled by less-qualified people.

Until recently 100 large employers accounted for about a third of all graduate vacancies. But evidence suggests that many small and medium-sized firms are starting to recruit graduates.

Job-seekers afraid of being under- employed should heed the Institute of Manpower Studies' researchers. In the IMS Graduate Review 1992 they say: 'One point that is often neglected . . . is the extent to which recruiting graduates to jobs that may be below their capabilities actually raises the status and scope of these particular jobs.

'Thirty years ago . . . one could easily pursue a career in accountancy, law or personnel without a degree; today it is almost impossible.

'Many occupations are becoming increasingly 'graduatised' . . . . Although an occupation may not be definedas graduate level today, in time, as more graduates enter the occupation, it is likely that a degree will become more necessary. Graduates entering jobs where traditionally a degree was not necessary can bring to it new or different skills. These may change the nature and scope of the job, establishing it as a graduate-level occupation.'

Higher education careers advisers are warning that employers on this year's milk round will select more rigorously than usual. Final year students should apply early, target their applications precisely and be highly professional in presenting themselves on paper and at the interview.

John Simpson, director of the careers service at Imperial College, London, says the milk round is still 'alive and kicking'. There are 80 employers booked to visit his college (about 10 per cent down on last year), but they are cautious about predicting their vacancy numbers, he says. 'Employers are tightening their specifications and holding out for better, first degrees,' he adds. 'The general advice I'm giving people is that 1993 will be no better than 1992.'

Mr Simpson accepts that fewer recruiters may be making the milk round visits because employers now receive large numbers of speculative applications. But he says: 'We recently had a seminar with several major employers who all said how important and cost-effective the milk round is - certainly more so than the careers fairs.'

Keith Dugdale, director of Strathclyde University's careers service, is less optimistic. He says his milk round will be about 20 companies down on 1992 and those who attend will have fewer vacancies. It is, he says, 'a depressing picture'. He does not expect a significant early upturn, even if the economy improves. 'Companies are being very cautious and will only increase their vacancy numbers if there is a miraculous turnaround . . . certainly not in time for the milk round.'

However, he does believe that students who are professional and creative in their job search, and who target prospective employers carefully, will find employment.

Some employers are cutting visits to target institutions and departments that have provided high-calibre recruits in the past. Graham Wessel, a director of Trotman & Company, which produces recruitment brochures for big employers, says the message he is getting from recruiters is that they are not finding the quality of graduates they seek. 'Last year most employers found applications were substantially up, but because students were less targeted in their applications, the overall calibre of candidates was diluted.

'I think that in 1993 employers will be more selective. This may include cutting out milk round visits to some marginal institutions that have not previously yielded good candidates.'

What strategy will maximise the chances of finding suitable employment? Mr Simpson recommends: 'Apply early and make use of the milk round, as a lot of the best jobs will have been filled by Easter. Stick close to your subject rather than going for 'any-discipline' jobs, which are more competitive. And remember, it is better to make some good targeted applications than using the scatter-gun approach.'

Mr Dugdale suggests: 'Be more creative in your job search. Go out and look for vacancies - use business intelligence.' He advocates, for example, looking through the business sections of newspapers and journals for news of business expansion and the awarding of new contracts.

Send applications in small, carefully targeted batches, advises Margaret Wallis, deputy chairman of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services and director of the careers advisory service at Warwick University. 'Prepare carefully through background reading on the company . . . . The paper pre-selection is the worry. Send off a few and use the feedback from that batch to prepare the next.

'In preparing for the interview, put yourself in the employer's shoes and think what you would ask if you were faced with your application form,' she says.

Few employers can see all applicants during the milk round, and so must pre- select from the application forms. The initial sifting of these forms is often mechanical, eliminating those who do not match selection criteria. So if an employer asks for particular A-level subjects, those without them are rejected without further consideration. To make an application that does not meet all given criteria is a waste of time.

This mechanical pre-selection worries many careers advisers. They believe it tends to exclude the growing proportion of 'non-standard' graduates, such as those entering degree courses as mature students and with qualifications other than A-levels. The problem is that recruitment budgets are tight and employers need an inexpensive means of pre-selection. Moreover, some organisations have downgraded graduate recruitment, replacing senior graduate recruitment managers with inexperienced juniors who do not understand the implications of cheap procedures.

Applications should show evidence of careful thought in the answers to questions such as: 'Which parts of your course are of particular interest or relevance?'; 'Give reasons for your career choice'; 'What has been the most significant moment of your life?' and so on. It is also important that the application is neatly presented, with correct grammar and spelling.

The time available to impress recruiters on milk round interviews is short and must be used effectively. Applicants who are enthusiastic about their studies and the work for which they are applying will have the best chance.