The economy may be going through lean times, but in the view of Carl Gilleard, longstanding chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters – which celebrates its 40th birthday this year – job-seekers have no need to panic yet.

“I came into this industry in the boom time of the late Eighties, but I also saw graduate vacancies plummet when we hit a recession only a couple of years later,” he says. “But having survived a whole series of stop-go cycles, I can honestly say that despondency about your career prospects when times are hard is about as wide of the mark as the assumption that in the good times, simply having a degree somehow automatically entitles you to a fantastic career and enormous salary.”

Adaptability, then, is the order of the day, says Gilleard. “Getting that top-of-the range BMW, a flat in town and the job you have wanted from childhood is still within your grasp, but you need tenacity, flexibility and a rigorous approach to managing your career just as much as you need a good degree.”

While Gilleard and his organisation are currently urging employers not to abandon their graduate recruitment programmes – “They’ve done that before and it costs an awful lot financially and in terms of firms’ reputations to get them back on track” – he accepts that there will be fewer vacancies, particularly in financial services, this winter.

His advice to new graduates is to be far more aware of overall market forces in employment – “the private sector may be contracting, but the public sector is still in expansionist mode,” he notes – and to be more flexible in terms of who they approach.

Being more mobile with regard to where you are willing to work is another tip, as is learning patience when it comes to getting a foot on the first rung of the career ladder.

“Smaller firms based in the knowledge economy are highly committed recruiters of graduates, but too many job-seekers will still only look at the great big global players that dominate careers fairs and graduate recruitment campaigns,” he says. “Similarly, the trend to go to your home university has all sorts of practical advantages, but if you aren’t prepared to be geographically mobile during a recession, then you will limit your career opportunities still further.”

It is also important, he adds, to explore different ways to get a foothold in your dream industry. “I think it would be totally laudable to consider studying for an MA or PhD just now, just as long as you understand exactly how a second or third degree will benefit your long-term employability.

Never tell future recruiters that you undertook this or that course because there were no jobs in your chosen field at the time, though – they won’t be impressed.”

For those graduates who decide to wait for better economic news before entering the job market, Gilleard suggests looking beyond purely academic options.

“If you know from your research into your chosen field that what you still lack is a firm grounding in IT, or in project management, then you should either use the coming year to sharpen your skills at an FE college, or take a job that will build up your general business awareness in a field unrelated to your long-term career plan.”

He adds: “Many people in their mid twenties find that they are actually far more employable and confident after a period spent away from study, so you shouldn’t assume that you have to be 21 and fresh from university to stand any chance of making it.”

If the most pressing challenge for the Association of Graduate Recruiters is to persuade employers not to curtail graduate recruitment plans when things are tight, Gilleard, who has notched up 10years in the chief executive post, also sees its role as bridging the still considerable gap between industry and higher education.

“Although the association has built a fantastic reputation in the recruitment arena, we feel we have far more to offer in terms of how graduates are developed once they’ve been hired,” he says. “As long as employers continue to complain – and it’s not a new gripe – that graduates lack basic literacy skills or communication nous, it appears that there is far more work to be done in terms of boosting sheer employability among these very academically bright young people.”

Ultimately, however, Gilleard’s message is that however hard you study, a degree won’t automatically open the right doors. “Going to a prestigious university may make the initial recruitment stages go more smoothly, but in the long term,what employers are really looking for is an understanding of what their business needs along with a willingness to get the extra training, or even work experience, that they require,” he says.

“University will never provide you with an automatic route to success and fortune. But if you have that magic ‘X factor’ of personal commitment along with the sheer drive to add to your list of qualifications, there’s no reason why your career dreams shouldn’t come true.”