William Archer, an international graduate recruitment consultant and former national campaign leader of the Student Industrial Society, says: 'I know of a number of employers who are increasing their numbers on last year but are just not willing to announce this.' He emphasises: 'Despite the milk round falling, despite there being fewer visible advertised signs of increased vacancies, there are more vacancies than before.
'The important point is that the top companies are looking beyond the recession,' says Mr Archer. 'What we are certainly seeing in the last few months is the first indication of companies deliberately planning beyond the current economic environment.'
There are two reasons why employers are unwilling to admit to an increase in graduate recruitment, according to Mr Archer: 'It's difficult for them to make a great deal of noise about the fact that they are increasing their numbers when speculative applications are still very high. And a number of big companies are having to lay people off and it's very difficult to announce redundancies on the one hand and increased graduate recruitment on the other.'
Nick Jagger is a member of the team at the Institute of Manpower Studies (IMS) which conducts biannual surveys of graduate salaries and vacancies for the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) and produces the annual IMS Graduate Review. He confirms Mr Archer's observations.
'Some larger organisations - those using manpower planning, who are confident about their future, and who remember what happened after the 1981 recession - are increasing their graduate numbers.
'At the end of the 1981 recession graduate recruiters realised they had overreacted to the recession and under-recruited, so leaving a hole in their management structures. There was a mad scramble for graduates, a real tendency to over-recruit.' He suggests that 'the phenomenon is likely to be even more dramatic this time'.
Not all companies yet anticipate an upturn. In firms where graduate recruitment needs are centrally determined at a strategic level, 'to create a resource for the future', Mr Jagger says recruitment is picking up. But he says those who determine needs at divisional level are still pessimistic.
He agrees that companies are keeping quiet at the moment about any increased vacancy numbers. However, he says the upturn in the market is likely to become apparent when the next AGR graduate vacancy survey is published this summer.
The secrecy of those who are increasing vacancies is understandable because they do not want a flood of speculative applications. However, there is one unfortunate consequence of this. Many graduates believe the market is worse than it is; so tough, indeed, that a job search is not worthwhile.
The need to encourage graduates to carry on looking for work prompted Marks & Spencer to publicise its decision to increase the number of graduates taken on this year. Kate Tyzack, head of recruitment, who becomes AGR chairman on 1 April, says many people are spreading 'doom and gloom' about the graduate market, 'so when there's positive news it's good to spread that. We're pleased to announce our figures have increased. We were looking for 130 graduates, now we're looking for 190.'
She says that students do need good news, and she believes many companies will use the summer jobs fairs to acquire extra numbers - but she warns: 'We shouldn't be too optimistic - the little green shoots might still get frosted.
'But what is also starting to happen is that people at work are beginning to have the confidence to look around for a new job, so vacancies are being created by mobility, which has not happened for two or three years. It's just beginning and it's very slight. And if employers haven't taken this into account in their manpower plans, then that also will increase their need for more trainees.'
She supports the view that the emphasis on bad news is discouraging graduates in their job searches, noting that many graduate recruiters have seen a downturn in applications. She feels that this tendency, and the fact that some graduate recruiters cancelled this year's milk round visits because of a lack of applications, is 'really quite shocking'.
The apparent unwillingness among graduates to chase jobs vigorously angers William Archer. 'What is worrying is the number of students I'm talking to who dip their toe into the employment market, complain that it looks uninviting, and then retreat into further postgraduate education or simply say 'I'm holding off'. This is pathetic from people who've invested so much time in their own intellectual development.'
He advises: 'There are still opportunities. You should not be put off by the news every evening, the unemployment figures and the redundancies. You should research what sector you want to work in, which company you want to work for, and then pursue those companies. It is surprising how many students still expect employers to make the journey to their campus. If you want to secure the job that's going to help to build your future, it's only you that's going to do it these days.'
Graduates should not look only to big employers. Many medium-sized and smaller employers are entering the graduate market for the first time.
The IMS and AGR have noted that such companies are now serious entrants to the graduate recruitment market. Roly Cockman, secretary of the AGR, says: 'We are having an increase in interest in membership from a wide range of sectors. These are employers entering graduate recruitment for the first time or who are taking their graduate recruitment more seriously.'
Although some recovery is under way, not all graduates will quickly find a job. Those who fail are advised both by employers and by careers advisers to use their time in temporary work, voluntary service, training and other activities which will give them skills that will subsequently prove valuable at work.
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