Patrick Johnson: Graduates want to see they will be welcomed by an employer

A considerable number of organisations have been reviewing their recruitment and selection practices in order to attract and recruit BME graduates. Are we any further ahead?

Rather worryingly, the unemployment figures still suggest BME graduates are more likely to be unemployed. It is important to drill down into the figures as they do mask huge variations between different ethnic groups, particularly between African-Caribbean and Indian students. This can be traced back to how well certain groups do at GCSE and A-level. Because of this, some employers are targeting specific ethnic groups who are under-represented in the workforce.

Employers are keen to work with BME students and to get involved in a range of positive action programmes. At the University of Manchester we organise several programmes that give BME students and employers an opportunity to engage with each other. On 12 October 2005, we will host our fifth Manchester Ethnic Diversity Fair. The event will showcase an eclectic mix of employers all keen to promote their organisation to BME students and graduates and to show their commitment to recruiting talented people, whoever they are. The list includes: ITV, Goldman Sachs, Accenture, Manchester City Council, NHS, PricewaterhouseCoopers, GCHQ and many more. Other initiatives to support BME students include: mentoring, insight days, work experience programmes and a range of career skills sessions. These are organised by universities, employers or specialist agencies. The insight days and work experience programmes tend to focus on particular careers, such as law, investment banking or the public sector.

Not all universities have positive action employability programmes for BME students but the numbers are increasing year on year. One of the reasons why these initiatives are important is that research suggests that suitably qualified BME students are failing to sell themselves appropriately and fall down at the application or interview stage. It is important that students have some knowledge of the organisation and industry they are interested in. They also need to understand what type of person that employer is looking for and the skills they require.

This is why the majority of positive action programmes are about giving students an insight into a particular career area, workshops on how to present themselves on paper and at interview/assessment centre and how to develop or demonstrate that they have the skills that employers are so eager to find.

Major employers need to rethink their recruitment strategy if they want a truly diverse workforce. They need to cast their nets wider than the traditional fertile ground of the Russell group universities in order to attract more BME students.

Some organisations are doing this. GlaxoSmithKline recently requested statistics from the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) which told them in which universities they'd find BME chemistry students. This has helped them to better target under-represented groups.

Students and graduates want to see that they will be welcomed by an employer. This may mean placing positive role models in recruitment literature or BME staff going on campus. Employers need to be explicit about their commitment: "If there is no one else in your organisation like me, how do I know you are truly interested?"

Employers also need to be culturally aware. This could have an impact on selection practice. Cultural factors could start to explain why certain groups behave in certain ways. Sometimes employers are unaware of these differences and are unwittingly discriminating against particular groups.

It is really important for BME students to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way. Having the opportunity to network with employers or gaining an insight into what employers are looking for. Capitalising on these links will give BME students, graduates and graduate recruiters a competitive edge in an increasingly tough market.

Patrick Johnson is Head of Diversity, Careers & Employability Division, University of Manchester

www.manchester.ac.uk/careers/fairs

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