Andrew Whitmore: In a competitive job market, it pays to research all your options and be prepared

The current market for graduate opportunities is booming. Of course, some companies will be doing better than others, a fact that is reflected in career opportunities on offer; however, most sectors have been seeing an increased number of opportunities.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), which represents many of the largest recruiters in the UK, saw a 16.7 per cent increase in vacancies in 2006 on the previous year. Predictions are for further growth in 2007, with 35 per cent expecting more opportunities.

The greatest increases in opportunities were in accountancy, general management, investment banking and IT work. Civil engineering, electrical and electronic engineering and manufacturing engineering also saw rises.

The University of Manchester's Careers Service has seen record numbers of vacancies being advertised, more in 2006 than at any point in the last 10 years. Many of these vacancies are coming from small and often relatively new companies, so it is not just the big players that have opportunities. Surveys from other organisations, such as IDS, also indicate an increase in graduate opportunities and salaries.

One of the biggest problems that potential graduate job seekers have is finding out what opportunities are available. It is not that there isn't any information, rather that there is too much! Nothing beats actually meeting and talking to real people from companies and getting beneath the skin of that business and the careers that are on offer. These meetings often give you the real gems of information that help your application forms and interviews become more effective.

This is where careers fairs play a key role. The 24 and 25 October sees two of the largest careers fairs in Europe taking place in Manchester: the Finance, Business and Management Fair, and the Science, Engineering & Technology Fair. One hundred and eighty organisations will be attending over the two days of these fairs, providing you with the invaluable opportunity to get beyond what you can find on a company website.

Companies at both fairs will be recruiting several thousand graduates between them and, although some will have specific degree subject requirements, many will recruit across all courses and at all levels. So, whether you are studying accountancy or zoology, you will find firms that recruit graduates from your subject.

The job market may be booming, but it remains competitive; there are still many applicants for most posts. Major accountancy firms will receive at least 14 applications per post and marketing opportunities attract an even greater number of applicants.

If you really want a particular job, forget about the odds; concentrate on your own application and making the employer want to interview you. There may be equally attractive positions or back door routes into a particular occupation, so be prepared to investigate all opportunities; again, career fairs will give you great opportunities to do this.

Most non-technical graduate positions involve on-the-job training and therefore accept graduates from all degree subjects and disciplines. Many of the larger firms will take good results at degree level and A-level for granted, therefore your ability to stand out from the crowd is crucial. Ambition is a key driver within industry and you need to show that you are willing to run that extra mile in order to succeed.

Within the science, engineering and IT fields, you can't rely on your technical competencies; for most roles you will have to demonstrate your ability to work within teams and communicate your ideas to others.

Be aware that different companies will prioritise different skills, abilities and experience, according to their corporate ethos and employee requirements. It is in your best interests to find out what these priorities are, not just so that you can make sure you demonstrate the relevant qualities and experience, but also so that you can be certain that you really want to work for the company. Employers will be critical of candidates who have not adequately researched either the organisation or the job role.

Pre-application preparation is the key to success - and the earlier the better. Search company websites, use your university careers service and read the business pages of newspapers to keep yourself up-to-date with the latest relevant news and issues.

A couple of final tips: although most companies at careers fairs use electronic application forms, it is still worth taking an up-to-date CV, as it can often be used as your "calling card" that can be looked at by potential employers. Also, make sure you make a note of any useful information that you find out and the names and positions of anyone that you meet, as this could help with your application. Who knows, the next time you meet them could be at your interview!

Andrew Whitmore is head of careers at the Manchester Leadership Programme, Careers & Employability Division, The University of Manchester

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