Graduates from ethnic minorities are entering a wider variety of careers than ever before

Kate Hilpern reports on the success of diversity initiatives – and the death of some old prejudices
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The Independent Online

In spite of the uncertainties over the UK's economic situation, vacancies for graduates are predicted to increase by 16.4 per cent this year, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiter's (AGR) bi-annual survey. "Growth is predicted to be the highest it has been in a decade, which is great for graduates looking for a job," says Carl Gilleard, AGR chief executive.

For black and Asian graduates, there's more good news. The proportion of graduates recruited from ethnic minorities rose from 15.1 per cent in 2006 to 26.7 per cent in 2007. "That's a massive rise," says Gilleard. "What it says is that the effort a lot of employers have put into being an equal opportunities employer is paying off."

One of the biggest hurdles graduate employers have been up against is that the pool of professions that some ethnic minorities have traditionally applied to has been relatively small. But Gilleard says this is changing fast.

"I can remember holding meetings with groups of parents in the Asian community in Yorkshire 20 years ago, trying to broaden their horizons and stop them just wanting their children to become doctors, dentists and accountants, but it was a bit like talking to a brick wall.

"Most of those parents hadn't been in England long and had brought values about work from the Indian subcontinent. And I think there were understandable suspicions about why all these white guys were telling them what to do. But today we have a very different society and people from all cultures are far more knowledgeable about there being great graduate opportunities in a wide range of sectors."

Part of the change, says Gilleard, has been down to graduates doing what they want to do, rather than what their parents would have chosen for them. But probably more significant is the fact that employers have invested heavily in shouting about their career opportunities to a wider range of communities, as well as ensuring that diversity policies inside the workplace have an impact.

"We looked at our graduate recruitment because only 2 or 3 per cent were coming from black and ethnic minorities," says Andrew Wakelin, senior manager in the equality and diversity team at Lloyds TSB. "Some of the things we did were increasing the number of black and Asian faces in our literature and convincing parents that banking is a good career choice."

Wakelin adds: "We found a lot of family pressure in some groups about going into careers like accountancy, pharmacy and medicine. These families were initially unenthusiastic about people coming into banking because they saw banking as working in a local branch. They were not aware of all the other opportunities that existed behind the scenes, but through talking to them we changed their minds."

Lloyds also started training recruitment teams and advertising in specialist publications. "It was about taking every measure possible to send out some positive signals that we wanted the most talented black and minority ethnic graduates to work for us. These days we no longer need to proactively target them because 15 to 20 per cent of our graduate intake is from ethnic minorities every year."

Wakelin says the rest of the banking industry appears to be equally committed to ethnic diversity. "Between us all we have really changed the image of the profession."

Some industries, including publishing, have put in place specific training schemes to help address their shortage of ethnic minority employees. Bobby Nayyar is an Arts Council England positive action trainee, who spent his traineeship at Faber and now works in marketing at Little Brown.

"I studied literature at university and really wanted to go into publishing. When I saw the traineeship advertised in the paper and got on it, I felt really lucky because the experience you get is unrivalled," he says. "When it ended, I started a job the very next day."

Fiona Czerniawska, director of the Management Consultancies Association, says investment in graduate diversity is often demand led. "One of the reasons consulting firms started taking ethnic diversity seriously was because clients were starting to change who they recruited and the kind of consultants they wanted to work with. Essentially, they wanted a more diverse range of experience – people with different perspectives."

Among the things firms have done and are still doing, she says, are getting employees from ethnic minorities to talk to groups of ethnic minority students; inviting people to special networking lunches with senior members of a firm; and ensuring recruitment advertisements don't put people from ethnic minorities off applying.

Such are the ethnic minority shortages in the construction industry that they have put in place a team of dedicated equality advisors throughout the regions. "They help and support black and minority ethnic candidates during the job hunt process," explains Paul Sykes, head of recruitment and careers at ConstructionSkills.

Jamal Cassim, account manager at the advertising agency RKCR/Y&R, says advertising is one sector that still has a long way to go. "It's very much Caucasian persuasion," he says. "I'm surprised there aren't more ethnic minorities. But I've never felt any kind of prejudice."

Cassim says that he was encouraged to think about medicine as a career while growing up, largely because his father was a doctor. "But as I got older, I found my strengths were English and languages. There are still people from my parents' generation who don't understand why I would want to go into advertising over medicine or accountancy."

The next step for employers is ensuring that promotion is without bias. A recent survey from Capita Resourcing found that just 3 per cent of the public and private sector organisations they questioned said their management team was truly diverse.

It's also crucial that industries don't see ethnic minorities as a homogenous group, ensuring that no one group is left behind. In recognition of this, employers have backed a positive action campaign to attract more Muslim women into the workplace. About 800,000 are estimated to live in the UK, yet they are the most economically inactive group. Proposals include local businesses setting up mentoring schemes, as well as promoting job opportunities by using positive role models.

'My parents see me involved in some high profile jobs, and are pleased'

After graduating in 2005, Sachin Shah, 24, now works for the Home Office where he is team leader of an asylum case resolution team at the Border and Immigration Agency

"My family weren't keen on me becoming a civil servant because of the higher wages that can be earned in the private sector. They had grown up without much money. It was a struggle to get enough money together to buy a house. So the idea of me getting a job in the public sector did concern them in terms of my financial security.

"Nonetheless, having done a work placement in the Home Office as part of my degree, I was really attracted to the high level work you can do in the Civil Service. It was obvious that you can make a real difference. I was really interested in current affairs and political issues too – that's why I'd chosen to do a degree in social and political sciences. I applied for the Fast Stream Scheme in 2005, the year I graduated. My first post was in the Cabinet Office – Prime Minister's Delivery Unit – where there were few ethnic minority faces. I have since moved to the Home Office, working on asylum and there is much more ethnic minority representation. I think the nature of the work – asylum – and the location, Croydon, has a lot to do with that. In general, however, I think the Civil Service is a pretty impressive equal opportunities employer.

"Since my parents have seen me get involved in a couple of high profile jobs, they have become pleased about what I'm doing. Also, the reality is that salaries aren't that bad."