Top firms are continuing to recruit despite the recession

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The Independent Online

Even in an environment where most employers are trimming back on their graduate recruitment, or even suspending it altogether for a period, the competition to hire the best graduates remains intense. Evidence for this includes the continued popularity among employers of autumn university recruitment fairs, where students a year or so away from graduation weigh up their career options.

Among these are the fairs aimed at a niche market, for example, Manchester University's Ethnic Diversity Fair on 7 October, where all 27 available exhibitor stands were snapped up months ago. This is one of five fairs staged by the university this autumn, designed to promote opportunities for students graduating next summer. Three of the other four are subject-related, targeting science, business and law graduates, with the fourth aimed at postgraduates.

This year's is the eighth annual fair at Manchester specifically for ethnic minority students – although anyone can attend – and last year's event attracted more than 1,000 students from all over the country.

"There are many employers who like to raise their profile with black and Asian students to increase the level of applications, and demonstrate their commitment to diversity," says Tammy Goldfeld, assistant director of Manchester University's careers service.

Statistics show that fairs of this kind are by no means aiming at a numerically small target. Of the 880,000 undergraduates and postgraduates at university in the UK, around 140,000 are from an ethnic minority: more than 15 per cent of the student population.

The employers who'll be present at the Manchester event include several of the top drawer firms in accountancy and law, large public sector organisations, such as the NHS and the Civil Service, and a mix of well-known names from other sectors, including Google, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the supermarket chain Aldi.

Also taking space is the giant defence and aerospace firm BAE Systems, which employs 30,000 people in the UK alone. "Ours is a sector where we have found it more difficult to recruit a diverse workforce," says Richard Hamer, BAE's education partnerships director. "So we are putting in a bit more of a push in this area and trying to make our company a bit more inclusive."

Despite BAE's recent announcement of more than 1,000 job losses across four different UK sites, Hamer says graduate recruitment remains a key priority. Around 230 graduates joined BAE in the UK in September and a similar number will be recruited for next autumn.

Organisers of all this year's careers fairs know that part of their task is to persuade current students, whatever their ethnic background, that their job prospects are not as bad as they might think, despite the continuing recession and figures illustrating the difficulties that recent graduates have had in their job search.

"The key thing is that there are still jobs out there," says Adele King, one of Manchester University's careers consultants, who concedes that landing one of those jobs will be far from easy for the current crop of soon-to-be graduates. "It's really important that students get out and meet as many employers as possible, and understand how the companies operate as a business, and then think how they might fit into that organisation."

When it comes to making applications, King strongly advises students to use the resources and advice available at university careers offices to check that the skills and experience mentioned on their CVs and covering letters match what the employers are looking for.

One of London University's careers advisers, Hilary Moor, is running a half-day course in November for careers advisers called "Careers and the R-Word". The aim is to develop strategies to persuade students that recruitment doesn't stop altogether in a recession, and suggest practical ways for job searches to be sharpened in recognition of increased competition for vacancies.

One of Moor's messages for students is that they should look further than the high-profile graduate training schemes of the blue chip London-based firms.

"Something that we always try to persuade students to do is to look at their local Chamber of Commerce and call local firms in their area," she says.

"This is the year to be more entrepreneurial, take some risks and think outside the big names."