Vacancies are expected to increase by 17.5 per cent this year and are climbing faster than the number of people leaving university with degrees, the report by the Association of Graduate Recruiters reveals.
But graduates must be flexible and willing to take posts once traditionally filled by school leavers, because while more companies want degree holders, they expect them to start lower down the career ladder. Competition for the most able is however intense. Employers are offering the elite starting salaries of between pounds 18,000 and pounds 22,000 a year. More than 40 per cent of the 300 companies who took part in the survey said they had difficulty recruiting the calibre of graduate they needed.
They emphasised ability to communicate, commercial acumen, leadership and initiative as key skills they were seeking beyond just a degree. The industrial sector reported the highest demand, with vacancies rising 20 per cent. Roly Cockman, the association's executive secretary, said the figures showed a new found confidence among employers.
Between 1990 and 1994 graduate vacancies fell by 30 per cent. Last year saw the first signs of recovery with a 10 per cent rise in vacancies and the first fall in graduate unemployment for five years - to 11.7 per cent from 12.7 per cent. Mr Cockman said: "There is a real mood of confidence and optimism which was not evident before. Employers are planning for the future and hiring again.''
Salaries are also rising. The average graduate salary this year is forecast to be pounds 14,00, an increase of 3.7 per cent compared to pounds 13,500 last year.
But Mr Cockman said that it is the bidding for the best graduates at the top end of the scale which is pushing the wages figure up, rather than employers' willingness to pay graduates more for doing a sixth-former's job. The gulf between the lowest and highest earners is widening, with some university leavers settling for pounds 8,000 or less.
Mr Cockman warned: "Some people will have to adjust. They must have realistic expectations. Even after having gone through higher education and gained their degree, they need to accept that not everyone is going to be, or necessarily wants to be, a high-flyer. That in itself does not devalue the benefits of going to university and being better educated. The whole culture of higher education is changing. You are going to get people taking jobs which their parents and tutors do not think are suitable because they are not traditionally graduate jobs. But this is one of the effects of having a better educated society and we are going to have to get used to that.''
The survey also revealed that more than two-thirds of employers recruit graduates to positions outside of their formal graduate recruitment schemes. Mr Cockman warned that employers would have to be flexible too and recognise that graduates would need more challenges and responsibility even when recruited to non-graduate work.
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