An international database aims to lift the barriers to employment across the EU. By Stephen Pritchard
A European market in goods and services is something we now take for granted. But a true common market in jobs, and graduate jobs in particular, is still some way off. Currently, just over 2 per cent of UK graduates work overseas immediately after university, many taking short-term jobs, or teaching English.

UK citizens can work in any member state of the European Union without a work permit, and the EU Commission has done much to ease the transfer of social security benefits such as pensions and unemployment allowances.

Cultural and educational issues are lagging further behind. Higher education differs greatly across Europe, not least in the time it takes to gain a degree. The official line is that qualifications are seen as equal, but common sense says that a German employer, for example, will respond quite differently to the Lebenslauf of a native graduate, aged 29 or even 30, than a CV from a British candidate, who will be 21 or 22.

In much of Europe, there is little concept of a graduate with a general arts degree. Courses are far more vocational. A firm with a marketing vacancy would look for a graduate in that field; it would not hire a historian as a general graduate trainee, who would then specialise in marketing.

The European Union has responded by extending its centralised database for vacancies, EURES, to include graduate and professional jobs.

EURES is a computer network that links the state employment services of the EU and the European Economic Area states of Norway and Iceland. Sixteen universities in six member states now have Euro-advisers with access to the vacancy database. They check this daily, and pass relevant opportunities on to graduates, and also act as channel for employers who want to open up their vacancies to a European audience. Posts advertised cover the whole spectrum of graduate employment, although many are angled towards candidates with some professional experience.

Teaching and medical vacancies are common, as are jobs in areas such as computing and those requiring languages, such as bilingual secretarial posts. But more esoteric positions also find their way on to the system. A recent advertisement sought experienced musicians, including an oboe player, for the Barcelona symphony orchestra.

In its current, pilot form the six UK universities using EURES are providing vacancies only to their own students and graduates. If trials are a success, the network should extend to all UK universities, at least on a read-only basis.

The pilot has already shown some limitations of a computerised service. The database carries only very brief descriptions of posts. British companies that have tried it so far have received inappropriate CVs, with candidates with substantial experience applying for college leavers' jobs. The software will be upgraded, but in the meantime, the system relies very heavily on the expertise of the Euro-advisors, who can read between the lines of any advert and forward it to the relevant students.

One such adviser is Bob Porrer, director of Edinburgh University's careers service. So far, EURES has been most useful for postgraduate vacancies, Mr Porrer admits. "We will be using it with our MBA students over the summer," he says. "Many of them will have experience, or even overseas experience."

Most of the jobs on the system are also immediate vacancies, which mainstream undergraduates are not in a position to fill. The real test will come in the autumn, when this year's students are available for work. "It is still very much at the pilot stage, but it has a lot of potential," Mr Porrer predicts.

Even now, EURES has symbolic importance: it raises awareness of overseas opportunities for graduates and employers. However, careers advisers believe that the numbers that will obtain permanent career posts in an overseas country will remain small for some time. UK graduates suffer from a lack of language skills. Native fluency is not required, but a graduate realistically needs A-level competence.

A permanent job abroad, such as those currently advertised on EURES, is not the only way into employment in Europe. One common route is to take a UK-based job with a company that has substantial overseas operations. Most multinational organisations fall into that category. This allows the graduate to build up useful work experience, and also the right language skills. Even a language graduate might find business vocabulary - not always part of a degree programme - a challenge at first.

Another route is through short-term work. Even a menial job can give an insight into another country's culture, as well as vital language practice. Lower-grade jobs are usually less competitive, and the language requirements will be less stringent. Spending time overseas is also a good way to find out about the local recruitment market before applying for a permanent post.

In fact, Euro-advisors including Bob Porrer would like to see EURES extended to cover short-term work, and placements. Placements would be useful to British graduates, because of their younger age, and they would allow companies to experiment with overseas recruitment for little cost. Good graduates might even be asked to stay on.

"There's a real demand from students for a placement service, and employers would welcome it," Mr Porrer says. "It overcomes the problem of taking on someone from a different country, when you don't really know them."