Last week representatives from more than 40 large graduate recruiters including the BBC, Goldman Sachs and BT came to the University of Manchester and UMIST's Ethnic Diversity Fair.

I had the pleasure of welcoming Sir Michael Jay, permanent under-secretary of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Sir Michael and the recruiters shared the same reason for making the trip out of their London offices - to attract black and Asian graduate talent into their organisations.

Ethnic minorities are well represented in higher education, accounting for 13 per cent of undergraduates, and they are set to account for more than half the growth of the working age population over the next decade.

However, research indicates that ethnic minority students face difficulties in the job market and are three times more likely to be unemployed as white graduates. There are worrying disparities in the labour market performance of ethnic minorities and whites that are not attributable to different skill and education levels. Continued workplace discrimination is an important reason for this. Limited access to job and social networks also has a negative impact.

But there is also good news. Firstly, many organisations are now activity looking to recruit black and Asian staff. In the past this approach often reflected a need for companies to demonstrate they were adhering to anti-discrimination legislation. Now it is being driven by a recognition that recruiting a diverse workforce is a business imperative if companies are to reflect the communities they serve both in the UK and in the global market. Businesses know they need to recruit more ethnic minority graduates into management if they are to maintain a competitive edge.

The competition to recruit the best has intensified and organisations realise they will miss out if they don't target ethnic minorities. As Sheila Crennell, diversity manager at Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) says: "GCHQ values diversity and recognises the benefits to the department of recruiting from a wider pool of talent. We believe that if we don't tap into the ethnic minority market, we could be missing out on talented individuals who possess the right skills and abilities needed to develop our business."

Secondly, many universities and graduate recruiters have no provisions to enhance the employability of black and Asian students and place them in jobs. These include mentoring programmes, work experience projects and websites such as

Ethnic minority students and graduates need to be proactive in their job search. Visiting their university careers service is a good first step to take. Here they can source excellent advice from a careers adviser and start to research jobs and companies.

Most large graduate recruiters produce brochures and have good websites. Black and Asian students need to read these to find evidence that the companies they target are positive about diversity and recruiting ethnic minority graduates. Do they have staff to deal with diversity issues? Do they have dedicated recruitment and development programmes for ethnic minorities? Do they have senior black or Asian employees? Evidence, or lack of evidence, in these areas can indicate whether an employer is genuinely committed - or just playing lip service - to diversity.

Students and graduates should not feel embarrassed about challenging an employer's commitment to diversity. If they use equal opportunities monitoring forms, ask them why they are used and what the company does with the data. Some companies do very little with the information collected. Others will scrutinise the data to ensure they hit their targets and will change their recruitment strategy if it is failing to deliver the appropriate number of applications and job offers.

Networks play an important part in accessing the 80 per cent of job vacancies that are never advertised. Black and Asian graduates do not have access to the same network of contacts enjoyed by some white students. Ethnic minority students and graduates should be prepared to develop their own networks and aim to make contact with graduate recruiters through employer presentations on campus, at graduate recruitment fairs, through mentoring programmes and by approaching named contacts given in printed and online material.

Employers are keen to increase applications from ethnic minority students and happy to offer advice. Capitalising on these personal contacts can give black and Asian students and graduates a competitive edge in an increasingly tough market.

Jane Ratchford is director of University of Manchester and UMIST careers service