In the last three years, there has been an increase in the number of graduate vacancies on offer. Last year saw a sharp rise in opportunities, with nearly 17 per cent more in 2006 than in 2005, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), which represents more than 600 employers. Graduates of any discipline were welcome to apply for most positions; only 27 per cent of AGR employers surveyed stated that they preferred an applicant to have studied a particular degree subject.

The survey of AGR members also found that the highest numbers of vacancies last year were in the fields of accountancy, general management and investment banking, and most of the graduate jobs were based in London and the South-east. As for salaries, the average was approximately £23,000, with entrants into investment banking, law, management consultancy, actuarial work, IT and financial management commanding the highest pay.

The graduate recruitment marketplace is competitive, with employers receiving 28 applications per vacancy on average. So how can a graduate stand out from the crowd? Employers are seeking a solid mix of the right qualities and skills so that when they join the organisation they can hit the ground running.

Students who have made the most of their time at university through work experience, volunteering, part-time jobs and extracurricular activities can more easily show their commitment, drive, motivation and enthusiasm. They can also provide better evidence of some of the most sought-after skills: teamwork, oral communication, flexibility and adaptability, customer focus and problem solving.

Many university students I meet feel that their gender, race, disability, age or sexual orientation may be a disadvantage in this competitive job market. Rather worryingly, their perceptions are sometimes borne out in reality. Despite equal opportunities legislation, many groups are still under-represented in the graduate workplace.

We find, however, that some employers are working hard to redress the balance, and not just in order to comply with anti-discrimination legislation. Many graduate recruiters visit the University of Manchester campus every year to promote their "diversity-friendly" image in the hope of attracting diverse student and graduate talent. They are now aware that recruiting graduates of varying backgrounds brings a range of unique perspectives into an organisation. For many, it's a business imperative to have a diverse employee base that reflects both their customers and the communities in which they operate.

University careers services such as ours create and promote opportunities which bring together students and employers committed to diversity. One example is the Manchester Diversity Fair. This takes place on 11 October and will showcase a wide ranging mix of recruiters, all keen to promote their organisation to a range of students and graduates. We expect hundreds of students to meet with more than 40 leading employers, including ITV, the NHS, Goldman Sachs, Accenture, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the General Medical Council. The fair will be complemented by a series of workshops aimed at specific groups of students, including minority ethnic, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and disabled.

Students should try to take advantage of all diversity initiatives on offer because they can help them to widen their network of contacts and gain an insight into different career areas. These include mentoring, insight days, work experience programmes, diversity websites and a range of employer-led career skills sessions.

A common reason why students may not get a particular job is because they fail to sell themselves to employers. Having a mentor can help them to boost their confidence. Shuhel, a computer science student who was mentored by an IT professional, says, "I've found the whole experience extremely helpful, and I have gained both inside industry knowledge and better interview techniques, which I provided me with an edge over other applicants. The outcome is that I've managed to secure a graduate position as an analyst programmer with a top IT company."

While some recruiters have fully grasped the diversity agenda and are being proactive and innovative on campuses, others will need to rethink their recruitment strategy if they want a truly diverse workforce. They need to cast their nets more widely and question whether their recruitment practices are truly inclusive.

Campus visits by positive role models can often inspire potential applicants. Employers can also feature minority ethnic employees in their recruitment literature and on dedicated diversity websites, such as and

University careers services can also be important agents in helping both employers and students to improve diversity representation in the workplace.

Patrick Johnson is Head of diversity, Manchester Leadership Programme, Careers & Employability Division, University of Manchester