Final year undergraduates may be forgiven for looking askance at the turbulent state of the world economy this autumn. But while nobody would pretend that launching your career in a downturn is anything but a challenge – competition will now be fiercer than ever, say big recruiters – leading employers in both business and technology agree that the search for new talent continues apace among all degree disciplines.

"The City certainly has serious issues to grapple with at the moment, but from our perspective in the science, engineering and technology sector (SET), we are seeing a welcome renaissance in the railways," says Iain Coucher, chief executive at Network Rail, whose aim is to double current recruitment levels to around 500 graduates per year.

While graduates are, he says, "usually blown away" by the sheer scale of the flagship projects on offer – the £600m of redevelopment for King's Cross Station or the whopping £5.55m for the Thameslink Programme – there is a misconception that you need an engineering degree to pass muster.

Not surprisingly though in such a giant business, career paths at Network Rail are diverse. Commercial property, HR, finance or legal affairs are possible career options for non-engineers, as is a focus on project management, but Coucher is keen to stress that no degree subject can be deemed irrelevant at a firm whose profits after tax reached more than £1bn last year.

"A business, engineering or technology background is very useful to us in terms of our infrastructure projects, but as long as you have life skills, a passion for our business and an analytical mind, a career with us is possible."

"We are looking for any graduate who can bring in fresh ideas about how a modern railway should look – as well as challenge the old ways of thinking – and that will continue to be the case whatever degree they happen to have."

While Coucher's recruitment drive is made far easier by agenda-setting environmental issues and the enthusiasm for a "greener railways" approach – at 3M, which is looking for engineering and IT skills in particular, the ethos is more around technological innovation.

"If we were to stop graduate recruitment because of the credit squeeze, we'd find it very hard to plan our business four years down the line, so as far as we're concerned, graduate talent remains the lifeblood of this business whatever the current economic conditions," says Paul Anwar, the firm's talent acquisition manager.

"Innovation is in the fabric of this company and the fact that we are such a globally-based and diversified technology organisation makes us a very attractive proposition for those SET students who may not yet have decided what area to specialise in."

Anwar notes that the 20-something's innate understanding of innovation is invaluable for a firm that invented Scotch Tape and the Post-it Note, as well as first aid equipment and air filters.

"These people have grown up with technology and their savviness when it comes to e-solutions is second to none," he adds.

The Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd cast computer scientists as socially-inadequate nerds with scant understanding of business strategy, but over at technology firm IBM, which takes on between 200 and 250 graduates each year, software developers and engineers ride high.

"The reason we get such cool ideas here is that we are open-minded about recruitment," says Matthew Whitbourne, manager of the European summer internship programme.

"Rather than reduce our talent pool to graduates coming from a narrow academic background, we select those applicants who have the right mindset for our business and then give them comprehensive IT training."

"Whether you have a first degree in philosophy with no maths or a good computer science degree and fantastic numeracy, if you can process information and love technology, we can teach you everything you need."

While there have been many instances of English literature, art history or modern language graduates who have, since childhood, yearned to work with computers, being given their first big break by IBM, it's worth noting that the firm is old-school when it comes to the class of degree you have.

Although many top recruiters are softening their approach to grades – on the grounds that it's people, not simply exam passes, which matter – IBM remains a strictly 2.1 only employer.

"If you do have the grade we need, there are two very good reasons for looking at IBM," says Whitbourne.

"First, technology is the engine room of the firm, not shoved away in some basement department, and that means that if you enjoy IT, you can get to be involved in a whole host of different consultancy, hardware and software roles."

"The other reason is that when we say we champion flexibility, we mean it. As long as you are getting results in your area of the business, I really don't mind what time you start or go home."

Nobody expects you to read the FT every day, but if you're applying for one of the 750 graduate jobs on offer this year at the global audit, tax and advisory KPMG, you need to be able to demonstrate that you know your turnover figure from your bottom line, says Sara Reading, head of graduate recruitment.

"Read the Economist on a regular basis and choose a sector you're interested in and follow its progress financially," she advises. "That way, you'll get a good grounding in what we're all about, even if you don't yet have a grasp of how the yen is doing against the dollar."

"We encourage entrepreneurialism among our graduates and if you do go and start your own business on the back of what we teach you here, we won't consider it a waste of money. After all, there's every chance you'll come back as a client some day."

Applications to KPMG are already up 20 per cent on this time last year – on average, the firm receives 14,000 to 15,000 enquiries per year – and to Reading, this is a sign that graduates have understood the importance of applying quickly while much of the City is on its knees.

"We won't care if it's art history or accountancy you're studying, just as long as you can demonstrate you have the skills we need. My advice is to get your application in early – this month, if you like – and then go off and get a good degree."

Fuel poverty will no doubt continue to be a regular feature of the autumn's headlines, but from Centrica's perspective, greater awareness of the energy business can ultimately only be a good thing in terms of recruitment.

"Like many other firms, we are struggling to recruit the talent we need for our engineering jobs, but in terms of general management positions, there is a growing understanding of what we can offer in terms of a long and varied career," says Yvonne Crew, graduate and internship recruitment manager.

"The message to job seekers is that when it comes to energy, we source, it store it, trade it, sell it and save it and that inevitably involves a whole raft of different skills."

A decent amount of work experience is crucial in separating the wheat from the chaff, says Crew, and while a 2.2 degree is an acceptable minimum, the firm expects some evidence of hands-on practical experience of the world of work to boost a graduate's application.

"Whether it's bar work or something more challenging, we want to see evidence that you've really had, or at least tried to find, a reasonable amount of work and perhaps that you've been involved in relationship-building or even leadership in some capacity."

Doing your homework before applying to a firm is good advice at the best of times, but when the flurry of graduate applications to the big players in professional services is likely to reach avalanche proportions, it's even more crucial.

"We are expecting more competition in the jobs market in the coming months and those applicants who want to stand out need to know something about our business and be able to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for what we do," says Tom Crawford, director of employee engagement at Deloitte; which currently plans to take 1,000 graduates in 2009.

"We're looking for evidence of employability plus academic achievement and perhaps signs of leadership potential or an ability to overcome diversity in some way."

"A 2.1 from a good university is no longer enough to distinguish you from the competition," he adds. "We want someone who really stands out as an individual and can offer far more than sheer academic prowess."

So what do the firm's graduates get in return from Deloitte?

"Graduates want a good employer with a strong brand who will invest in their growth and long-term career development. That's where we come in," says Crawford.

"We have a broad range of fast-moving and stimulating roles in anything from consultancy services to financial advisory roles as well as tax and audit and we have a very broad range of clients."

"And no. We're not expecting any shortage of applications," he adds.

'I'm here to experience a whole range of engineering projects'

Zara Richardson, 25, is a graduate manager at Network Rail with a BSc in operations management from the University of Nottingham. She has worked on a number of different projects including the Olympics-related North London line rail improvements and a scheme to install ticket barriers at Waterloo.

"I went into a trainee buyer position after I graduated but the job was too concerned with profits and margins and I quit for a job in project management at the Metropolitan Police. I realised then that this was the role I wanted, but in a different sort of organisation.

I've always wanted to do something meaningful and for me, the railways represents just that.

I'm always prepared to muck in when it comes to working alongside the maintenance men on track at London Bridge or wherever.

Managers who just sit back and watch other people work can really get a team's backs up, but I'm here to experience a whole range of engineering projects and wearing a hard hat and being hands-on is the very best way of doing that."

'The investigations side is a bit like being an undercover cop'

Will Johnson, 23, graduated from Oxford in 2006 with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics and has a Masters in international politics from Aberystwyth. A graduate trainee with KPMG, he works in the forensics department of the firm; which traces illegal music downloads and counterfeit software and clothing.

"The digital downloads business is becoming more revenue-rich at the expense of musicians and record labels. Seeing a case through to the end and getting cash recovery for a client gives me a very good feeling and I'm sure at least some of it makes its way back to individual musicians.

The investigations side of my work is bit like being an undercover cop, but I am also being exposed to disciplines such as intellectual property law.

I knew that studying to be a chartered accountant – which I'll hopefully be by 2010 – would be important for my long-term career, but one of my main criteria for picking a firm was a chance to do something interesting while I learned. The music piracy game is certainly that."

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