Routes to the top

Smart graduates not only gain good degrees and relevant work experience, they also keep their finger on the pulse of the changing job market
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The Independent Online

A growing number of today's growth industries, including retail, construction, accountancy and the public sector, are keen to overthrow outdated stereotypes and get students to consider working for them. So far, it's working. Given the radical changes in the graduate market in which many of yesterday's winners are today's losers (and vice versa), students have no choice but to become more open-minded about where they will work.

A growing number of today's growth industries, including retail, construction, accountancy and the public sector, are keen to overthrow outdated stereotypes and get students to consider working for them. So far, it's working. Given the radical changes in the graduate market in which many of yesterday's winners are today's losers (and vice versa), students have no choice but to become more open-minded about where they will work.

Top retailers, including John Lewis and Debenhams, aim to attract graduates who may not have set out to work in this sector. "Retail used to have the image of stacking shelves - not a job for graduates! Even the graduate recruitment programmes were seen to have less kudos than in other sectors," admits Wendy Massey, graduate recruitment manager at John Lewis, one of the growing number of retailers who report a steady increase in graduate intake. "But as people realise that retail offers graduates a fast track into senior management, with salaries and benefits to match, in a challenging and exciting environment, this image is changing."

Having intended to go into teaching, Robert Garnish, department manager of linens at John Lewis in Kingston, changed his mind in his third year of university. "I was looking to gain some work experience over the summer and joined the John Lewis summer scheme. I took to it immediately, got on the graduate recruitment scheme and haven't looked back," he explains. "In some ways, there is a connection with teaching because a large part of my job is coaching and developing my staff. This is one of my favourite aspects of the work."

As part of its attempt to get more graduates on board, supermarket chain Tesco has launched a scheme called The Debut Club programme, which is designed for the 30,000 students currently working at the firm. The scheme uses a central website to communicate careers advice, online training, financial information and job opportunities. Group human resources director, Clare Chapman, says: "We have a formal graduate scheme, but we also have many graduates coming in at lower levels and working their way up."

Accepting a low-level job gives you the specific advantage of applying for vacancies that are only advertised internally. During times of cutbacks, companies are often required to advertise internally first. And many jobs are not advertised at all, giving you the chance to avoid competition.

Likewise, the route of work experience is becoming an increasingly popular way for graduates to start their career. According to the latest What Do Graduates Do? Report, launched by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), Graduate Prospects and UCAS in November 2003, degrees that provide the best employment prospects for students also have among the highest proportion of graduates returning to a previous employer. The study highlights the career destinations of graduates six months following graduation. "The message to students is loud and clear: get some relevant work experience under your belt while you're studying and you'll have a definite head start when you look for that all-important first job," says Mike Hill, chief executive of Graduate Prospects.

"Whilst it's the directly vocational subjects which offer the most scope for relevant work experience, developing a clear strategy with an HE careers adviser will help students focus their efforts on finding work experience that is most appropriate to their chosen field," adds Margaret Dane, chief executive of AGCAS.

Just as there are current boom industries for graduates, there are sectors, including IT, and companies, including ICI and Shell, that have a far smaller piece of the graduate pie than in the past. "But this doesn't mean IT graduates, or those having set their sites on the big blue-chips which have decreased their graduate intake, should panic," assures Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Associate of Graduate Recruiters. "You just need to be more flexible about who you would work for. Lots of organisations are still employing IT specialists - for example in retail."

Meanwhile, there are many small and medium-sized companies which are starting to invest in graduates for administrative and management jobs. These are not household names, are often regionally based and don't have the same pattern of recruitment as the big firms because they want to hire people immediately for vacancies they have on their books now. Get in early, get some experience, and you could be on the fast track for a high-powered and lucrative career in retail.

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