In the early part of this year, graduate job fairs were not the lively occasions normally associated with the milk round of recruitment. They would have been even quieter were it not for universities advertising further study. But this year's Autumn Graduate Fair, in the Royal Horticultural Halls in central London on 28 October, has an impressive list of exhibitors, from IBM to GCHQ to ClubMed.
"It's not quite green shoots – but green roots," says Mike Hill, chief executive of Prospects, the graduate careers service. Immediate vacancies posted on the Prospects website, which can be anything from unpaid internships to full-time positions with small to medium enterprises, were up 50 per cent year-on-year for September, having been "very flat in the early part of the year", says Mr Hill. "We're starting to get small indications that the graduate cohort of 2010 will not be facing quite such difficulty as those of 2009."
Some university careers services are reporting small rises of around 7 per cent in vacancies, according to Mr Hill. "But it's early days yet," he says.
Gerry Wyatt, operations director of Graduate-Jobs.com, the recruitment website that will also be exhibiting at the Autumn Graduate Fair, is similarly optimistic. "In the last two weeks we've noticed a change in activity and inquiries, especially from companies that really felt the recession. Smaller recruitment agencies who pretty much went to the wall this time last year are getting back in touch," he says.
The graduate jobs market is largely seasonal, he points out. With students returning to university, and thinking about careers sooner than usual, companies are starting to recruit. Besides, says Mr Wyatt, areas demanding higher skills tend to bounce back first, which leads to a demand for the higher qualifications that graduates can offer.
"It's also a general level of confidence," he says. "People have just got their breaths back, and are tentatively jumping on to graduate recruitment."
Graduate-Jobs.com will be registering graduates for its website at the fair, and representing some of its clients, which include names such as Citigroup, JP Morgan, John Lewis Partnership, Foxtons and Aldi – known for its competitive starting salaries that come with a company car.
"For us, it helps to show some of our clients that we're out there looking for graduates, and helps us to gauge graduate opinion, and understand the issues they face," says Mr Wyatt.
Some 17 universities are also signed up to exhibit at the fair, including Coventry, Brunel, Liverpool, Southampton and King's College London.
The armed forces will put in an appearance in the shape of the RAF and the Army, as well as public-sector outfits HM Prison Service and the Civil Service, which will be touting its Fast Stream for graduates. The third sector, which some would argue was a chief beneficiary of the downturn, will also be represented by Cancer Research UK. A regular at graduate fairs throughout the recession, the charity says it has in the past taken on graduates it met at Forum3, the volunteering recruitment event supported by The Independent.
"The type of roles we have aren't just the stereotypical charity roles that people think of with Cancer Research UK," says Nikki Soul-Gray, graduate programmes adviser for the charity. "We need the same graduates as blue-chip companies. We need business acumen; we need high-fliers."
Cancer Research UK has two graduate programmes on offer: fundraising, marketing and communications; and corporate and scientific services, which covers finance and human resources. "It's all very well having a website, but it's key to have that face-to-face interaction," says Ms Soul-Gray. "It's very nice when someone has done their research and doesn't come up and just say, 'What do you do?'"