The third annual graduate careers survey, published today, reveals students are increasingly delaying decisions on life after graduation until after final exams, with fewer than half making any job applications at all while still at university.
The research, based on interviews with more than 12,000 students in Britain's "old" universities - the traditional hunting ground of companies seeking promising trainees - suggests major graduate employers may be missing out on talented candidates by trying to recruit before finals.
Only one in four students expected to start a graduate job after leaving the university, while the rest resisted the lure of the "milk round" - the annual recruitment tour of campuses by graduate employers including Ford, ICI, Unilever and Esso.
A fifth were planning post-graduate study, over a quarter thought they would travel or had no definite plans, and one in ten expected to take work other than a graduate job.
The relaxed attitude to job-hunting among the class of '97 comes despite a 12 per cent increase in graduate posts this year, according to predictions made by employers in January.
Though the message had got through to students that the graduate job market was booming again after a period of decline, they were still staying away, said Martin Birchall, director of the survey. "They feel that if there are more jobs available, there is no urgency to apply, and they might as well enjoy their final year.
"But that does not take into account employers who may want to recruit in the spring and may miss some of the brightest students."
Undergraduates' laid-back attitude to employment reflected a lack of emphasis placed on work preparation by old universities, he suggested. "Career planning and job hunting is just not a significant priority for universities. Right from the very first week students are told they should focus on their academic studies, yet there are really very few people encouraging them to decide what they want to do afterwards."
Surveys of employers have shown a strong academic record is only one of a range of requirements in choosing a graduate trainee. Companies also seek significant work experience, evidence of an active student life and a sense of direction, and determination to pursue a chosen career.
The graduate careers survey reveals that top universities, where many courses incorporate work placements - including Bath, Aston, Loughborough and Imperial College, London - are most likely to produce students heading for graduate jobs.
The research also shows the most popular graduate careers areas were engineering, accountancy and marketing, while purchasing and actuarial work were bottom of the pile.
Students had relatively modest expectations of their starting salary, averaging pounds 14,400, but were predicting a dramatic earnings increase to pounds 26,300 within five years - an increase of 16 per cent every year.Reuse content