Anne-Marie Martin: Despite gloomy economic predictions, the job market remains buoyant – but wary

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The Independent Online

The new academic year is in full swing. Careers advisers have their ears to the ground trying to work out what the market for this year's finalists will be like. It is a bit too early to predict with any confidence. There is uneasiness in the City and, since it gobbles up so many graduates, if this uneasiness results in a reduction in the number of graduate vacancies then the knock-on effect will be significant.

Reports of a slowing-down in the economy leading to a possible reduction in public spending will add to the woes of the class of 2008. The public sector is another massive recruiter of graduates. As yet, however, there is no sign of a general slowing down. Employers seem eager to impress final year students and to sweep up graduates from 2007 returning to the UK after the summer. Information and recruitment fairs, employer presentations and other promotional activities are occurring almost every day all over the country.

In an unpredictable market, the best advice is to apply early. Recruiters don't like to withdraw offers and, even if the predicted slow down becomes a recession, they will try to honour offers, and so "apply now" is this month's key graduate tip.

Last year was a bumper year. The Association of Graduate Recruiters reported an overall rise in the number of vacancies of 12.7 per cent on 2006. Vacancies had risen by 5.5 per cent in 2006, so the rise over the two years was quite staggering. Looking in detail at 2008, most finance events are heavily supported by accountants, investment, insurance and pension companies and their support consultancies. However, perhaps the retail banks, the first to feel the effects of the US sub-prime problems, are not so prominent as usual. Time was when consultancy firms either specialised in IT or were general strategists. Nowadays there are as many specialist consultancy firms as there are industry sectors, with companies providing consultancy services to the transport business, the pensions industry, retailing, travel – you name it.

They all seek graduates with exceptionally good academic credentials, good interpersonal skills and high powers of analysis. Consultancies tend to target a small number of the more prestigious higher education institutions and so if you have what it takes but are studying at a non-targeted institution it can be difficult to get noticed. Graduate Select Finance is a special event designed to help top companies in finance, consultancy and IT to access the top students in all institutions. Students are pre-selected against employer criteria (which does not include where you study) and only 1,000 of the best are invited to meet the top quality employers that attend. The large, well-known recruiters like Shell, Accenture and BT rub shoulders with the niche consultancies like Lane, Clark and Peacock and Tata Consultancy Services but what they have in common is a desire to recruit high flying graduates.

Outside of the finance and consultancy sector, the usual suspects – teaching, retail, sales, civil service and manufacturing are maintaining a good level of recruitment activity. The demand from the IT sector continues to grow relentlessly. The good news is that the range of opportunities open to graduates continues to expand. Time was when market traders were rarely graduates – the industry preferring school leavers. Jane Street Capital and Benedix are set to change all that. Market research and intelligence organisations seem to be a consistent growth area and to recruit actively. Logistics, a sadly misunderstood gem of a job, performed both within major manufacturing firms and through specialist transportation companies, is remains a constant recruiter.

Probably the most buoyant sector at the moment is the construction industry. The 2012 Olympics and other public sector building contracts have injected life into this sector and only time will tell whether the credit crunch and mortgage hikes will see a slowing down. New into the market this year are Kobalt, the music publishers, Loyalty Management Group, the company that runs Nectar and other loyalty cards and M3 Consulting, for all those budding Property Development Managers. General Electric, William Hill the betting agents and Boots return to the London market after a while away.

Starting salaries seem to be keeping pace with inflation. The major recruiters continue to rely on psychometric testing and despite good proof that using degree class as a selection tool discriminates in all the wrong ways, a 2.1 is still the most common requirement.

Students in 2008 care about work-life balance, corporate social responsibility and the environment. Perhaps, more importantly, Generation Y assumes work will be fun. They want instant feedback and instant gratification. Now there's a challenge for employers.

Anne-Marie Martin is Director, The Careers Group, University of London

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