Now you've graduated, what's the next step?

How to choose your path  and walk it confidently. By Jessica Moore

Let’s be clear about one thing: “You mustn’t put too much pressure on yourself about the first move you make after you graduate,” says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR). “A career isn’t necessarily about the first thing you do. That’s an important step, but it is just that – only a step, in the fast-moving, everchanging world of work.”

Still, graduation day can be daunting – and not just because you’re required to publicly wear a very silly outfit. It’s the day you leave the predictable routine of undergraduate life, and the day you need to seriously consider that most terrifying of questions: what next?

“There are really good opportunities for graduates out there,” says Paul Redmond, president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), as well as director of employability and educational opportunities at the University of Liverpool, and a board member of the AGR. Redmond’s experience contradicts numerous headlines printed throughout 2012 and casts a new light on the Futuretrack survey findings, published in November, which states that 40 per cent of graduates aren’t employed in graduate-level roles two years after they leave university. “You’d be surprised how many of the large employers we talked to didn’t fill all their graduate vacancies in 2012 – and that’s across the board. Recruiters are saying it’s hard to get the graduate talent they’re looking for.”

The game has changed

This rings true to Ryan O’Hara, who launched the online jobs board and graduate recruitment site, careers4students.co.uk, just nine months ago. “My business partner and I were working in recruitment, and we both found that we struggled to fill graduate vacancies,” he explains. “There’s a common misconception that graduates are easy to recruit, but actually they’re really hard to reach – especially for SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises].

We’ve tried to put something together to help graduates and employers connect.” To that end, their website also offers free careers advice.

When it comes to graduate employment, the rules of the game have changed, explains Redmond. “Relevant work experience is far more important than before, closing dates for graduate schemes are earlier, and a third of graduate recruiters, we think, hire the people who’ve already done internships with them,” O’Hara says. As for the graduate roles themselves: “In the past, a company might have taken on a graduate and waited five years before they were productive. Today, employers need people to be productive quicker.”

Internships can be a great way to get yourself ready for a job, says Gilleard. He also points out that, for graduates on internships or work experience placements, employers could be flexible when it comes to working hours, allowing you to up-skill as you gain relevant experience.

“If your IT skills aren’t as good as they should be, for example, you can enrol on a short course. There’s a range of things you can do to improve your CV and gain insights into new areas of work. Use your time to good effect.”

This can be a costly business, however. “There was a lot of debate last year around unpaid work experience, and a suggestion that employers shouldn’t be taking people on and not paying them – but I think it depends how long you’re there for,” says O’Hara. “We advise graduates to use every contact they have to gain work experience and, if it’s unpaid, weigh up the opportunity. It may still be worth taking it for a week, a fortnight, even a month. You’re gaining experience that you can use in competency-based questions in interviews, as well as insights into your industry, and contacts.”

The social network

There are a number of online services that can help graduates find internships, including milkround.com, inspiringinterns.com and graduatetalentpool.direct.gov.uk.

A number of universities also run programmes that help graduates gain work experience, among them University College London (ucl.ac.uk/careers/gradclub/jobs) and the University of East Anglia (uea.ac.uk/internships).

Liverpool University also runs an internship programme (graduatetomerseyside.co.uk), placing graduates of any university into paid internships in Merseyside.

“We don’t handle unpaid internships,” says Redmond. “We’ve also been running boot camps for students to help them to understand how to use and manage social media.” This, he says, levels the playing field, removing some of the common barriers to successful networking, such as where you live and how well connected your family may be within your sector. This cohort of graduates are digital natives who have the potential to revolutionise the workplace,” he adds.

“They’re really switched on to entrepreneurship and ‘intrepreneurship’ – which is being entrepreneurial and enterprising while working for an organisation. We call it ‘Me Plc’.”

Social media is an incredibly important part of that – especially when it comes to marketing yourself. A potential employer will read your CV, but they will also put your name into Google, look at your LinkedIn profile and scrutinise your Facebook account – keep postings professional and information consistent. Use media to your advantage, too. “Be clever and be creative,” says O’Hara. “You could make an online video CV, for example – the technology allows people to stand out in the market. It’s about making the most of every opportunity you get. Network as much as you can, and use the tools available to you.”

Education, education

Of course, the workplace isn’t the only route for graduates. Further study is another solid option, either to scratch a personal itch to learn, or to gain a professional qualification required by prospective future employers. “The decision about whether to do a postgraduate course is a difficult one,” says Gilleard. “But if that’s what you choose to do, you have to turn that experience to your advantage. One of the most depressing situations for a recruiter is to ask someone why they chose to take a postgraduate course and hear, ‘I didn’t know what else to do’, or to ask what you gained from it and hear, ‘I don’t know’. That means you haven’t moved forward one jot.”

Is it worth it?

According to O’Hara, knowledge of your chosen field is the all-important factor. “For certain industries, it might be valuable to gain a professional qualification or a Masters degree,” he says. “You need to research your sector and find out what’s going to make you stand out; what’s going to make you a more desirable candidate. Is further study going to accelerate your career in the long term, or would experience get you where you want to go?

“Think carefully about the ‘added value’ of a course and exploit all the opportunities it presents,” explains Gilleard. Then indulge in a little selfreflection to help you articulate just how much you’ve learnt. “Look in a mirror and ask, ‘What is my unique selling point? What will I gain from my studies that will impress people?’ Employers are open about what they’re looking for, so highlight the things you’ve got or done that would demonstrate that you are, for example, capable of making difficult decisions – and back it up with evidence.”

The future’s bright

Whatever you decide to do, whether it’s applying for jobs, approaching companies for work experience, considering a new course, or interviewing for a gap-year project, try not to take knock-backs too personally, says Gilleard.

“It can be quite a shock to get your first rejection, especially as many graduates today have done nothing but succeed. They’ve done well at school, they’ve got into their university of choice and they’ve come out with a good degree. Then, suddenly, someone says, ‘Sorry, we don’t want you’.

It will happen to everyone – but it can eat away at your confidence. Remember you’re competing against lots of other candidates. Keep positive,” he says. In the long term, every graduate will be looking to enhance their employability, in their own individual ways and with their own personal ambitions. “Employability is about how you ride the waves of change,” Gilleard explains. “People in the world of work have to adapt to change and have a positive approach to learning. You need to reflect all the time, whether you go straight into employment after you graduate or not.”

“Graduates today are going to be working up to around 2060, in jobs that don’t yet exist and for organisations that aren’t yet trading, with products we don’t know we need yet,” says Redmond. “Things change quickly, and that leads to an exciting and dynamic workplace.”

“Are you keeping abreast with the skills that will be needed next?” asks Gilleard. “Never be quite satisfied with today. Always have one eye on the future.”

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