We are a society which, almost without noticing it, is becoming more divided by race and religion," believes Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality. If we continue sleepwalking into segregation, he warned in a speech last month, we'll find ourselves living in a Britain of passively co-existing ethnic and religious communities, "eyeing each other uneasily over the fences of our differences".
But while Mr Phillips focused on the critical need to encourage integration in both schools and universities, employers also have a crucial part to play - particularly when you consider that ethnic minorities are failing to secure a fair chunk of the graduate job market. Various reports reveal that while black and Asian people are more likely than their white counterparts to go into higher education, they face more problems getting jobs.
Part of the problem is that they are less likely to go to the universities and study the courses that are traditionally considered the most prestigious and they are also less likely, on average, to do as well in degree performance. A further problem lies in the fact that work experience is becoming increasingly important to employers, says Terry Jones, spokesperson for AGCAS (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services). "Work experience is often likely to be available to those with a connection or with the money to support themselves - both of which can put ethnic minorities at a disadvantage," he explains.
He adds that some graduate recruiters still see diversity as a box-ticking exercise. "They say they welcome ethnic minorities, but actually they're still looking for people who are like them - the ones who wear posh suits and speak like them."
Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Channel 4 News presenter, says of the industry he works in, "A reasonable number of middle-class, educated, mainly Asian people are getting to reasonable positions, both on and off screen in the British media. What hasn't happened is anything that really reflects the diversity of the ethnic minority population in Britain."
It doesn't help that some ethnic minority groups traditionally apply for a relatively small number of professions. Sanjay Shabi, who helps clients of the organisation MediaCom understand cultural communities in the UK, provides the example of many young Asians applying exclusively to professions like pharmacy, dentistry and accounting. "The influx into the UK that peaked in the 1960s consisted mainly of people coming over here to further economic progress, not only for themselves but for their families back home. Inevitably, the pressure to meet economic needs is instilled upon the generations that have grown up here since, and many are conditioned to get jobs in the classic professions," he says.
Fortunately, many employers are waking up to the business case for ethnic diversity and are actively seeking to overcome these kinds of problems by attracting ethnic minority graduates into a broader range of sectors. Besides being able to tap into a wider talent pool, many are also seeing the difference that avoiding segregation makes to profitability. "Gone are the days when organisations were interested in ethnic diversity simply from a do-gooding point of view," says Sandra Kerr, director of the Race for Opportunity (RfO) campaign. "Today's employers who are doing something about ethnic diversity realise that if you're good at race, you'll make more money."
Indeed, this year's RfO survey estimated the value of ethnic diversity to its members at £13.3m. Jenny Nixon, organisation development consultant for Bupa - the "most improved" private sector employer in the survey - believes one reason for this is that when a company establishes a respectful culture, employees are more likely to enjoy working there and deliver exceptional customer service. "We track employee satisfaction and it has improved with our focus on race diversity," she says. "It affects our bottom line."
While there are a huge number of ways in which employers are appealing to the rich vein of talent provided by ethnic minorities, some are proving particularly successful. The Metropolitan Police Service - which, like most police services, is suffering from a shortage of ethnic minorities - is among those focusing on getting the message across that graduates won't have to compromise their religious beliefs. Simon Marshall, director of recruitment at the Met explains: "We know Muslim communities, for example, have lots of questions about working for us. Our latest ads show that dress code, leave arrangements and catering within the police service are designed to accommodate all religious beliefs."
Amna Ahmad, a 24-year-old graduate who works for BT, knows how these graduates feel. "When I applied for graduate positions, I thought I might find it harder because I'm a Muslim woman, which means I wear a hijab and pray five times a day. But I found employers to be very accommodating," she says.
Like many graduate employers, BT belongs to the Employers Forum on Belief and has faith-based networks, including a Muslim network. "This was something I found helpful, as it allows you to network with different people at different levels," she says.
Other successful efforts by employers include working with recruitment agencies that agree to produce diversity shortlists, and targeting universities and courses with high proportions of ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, formalising work placements - and in some cases offering a number of placements exclusively for ethnic minorities - is encouraging a wider range of students to apply. Many employers are working with organisations like GTI, the National Mentoring Consortium and the Windsor Fellowship to provide other exclusive opportunities for black and Asian students. Ethnic diversity careers fairs are also increasingly popular, as is the creation of a "diversity champion" at the top level of an organisation.
The finance sector, which is particularly keen to reflect the communities which it serves, has moved forward leaps and bounds in its attempts to diversify. Andrew Wakelin, senior manager, equality and diversity at Lloyds TSB, says, "We have worked specifically with ethnic minority graduates and their families to show them that banking is a worthwhile career. We have also made the imagery of our literature far more inclusive."
Lloyds TSB has also focused on helping managers understand how to manage race - something that a fast-growing number of organisations are doing to ensure that an inclusive attitude is permeating through the company.
In order to make sure the message sticks, Balvi Macleod, a consultant on culture change and diversity, injects some merriment into her workshops by incorporating traditional Indian dancing.
"My aim is to take diversity a stage further by winning hearts and minds, having some fun and celebrating multiculturalism. If you want to convince people of the merits of diversity, I believe that you need to link it to their lives," she says.
Patrick Johnson, who chairs the joint race equality working group for AGCAS and the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), reports that as more and more companies find pioneering ways of attracting new talent, they are learning from each other. They can also learn from organisations such as his. "Our main role is to make recruiters more aware in terms of what ethnic minority students have to offer and to make sure the selection process is as fair as possible," he says.
Something that has become increasingly clear is that while some companies may have large percentages of ethnic minorities applying to them, they are falling down at the first hurdle, he says. The civil service has transferred the initial stage of its Fast Stream recruitment process online for this very reason. The idea was to make the recruitment process easily accessible to all, including those who do not traditionally see the civil service as a career option. To bring more ethnic minorities through the Fast Stream process, the organisation is also weighting cognitive and competency tests differently. Research over many years has identified the problem of negative impact on ethnic minorities where cognitive reasoning is concerned.
Olivia McKendrick, graduate recruitment partner at Linklaters law firm, points out that some sectors, such as law, are so committed to improving their ethnic mix that they are focusing on schools and universities, as well as graduates. "We've learned that you need to get to people early, at the point when they're making career choices. So a lot of our work is about knocking down perceptions at that stage. We still hear of teachers and university lecturers telling students not to bother applying to big firms like us because we mainly take middle-class white males, which simply isn't true."
Kofi Owusu-Bempah, a trainee solicitor at Linklaters: 'I certainly don't feel I would miss out because of my ethnicity'
When I was considering law as a career, the stereotype of the legal profession being male and middle-class soon emerged. That made me very conscious about the firms I applied to. I had gone to a London state school and a very multicultural university, and I didn't want to work anywhere where there hadn't been at least some efforts to become ethnically diverse. Linklaters fit that mould.
That may be why I haven't been made aware of my ethnicity since I've been here. I certainly don't feel I would miss out because of it.
I've just started my second of four seats on my training contract here at Linklaters. The first was in the investment management group and my current one is in the projects practice.
It is hard to get into law, but the rewards are many if you do. I particularly enjoy the learning process and discovering new areas of law, as well as the technical side of things. I also enjoy the client interaction and one of the things I get most satisfaction from is when a client sends you an e-mail to say what a great job you've done.
Ayesha Ghanchi, trainee curator of the coins and medals department of the British Museum: 'Museum work is often perceived as being for the privileged'
I've always been interested in education - in inspiring people and opening up knowledge - but not necessarily in a formal setting like a school. I used to work in a library, but a museum is better because of the amazing resources.
Having completed my degree in art history in 2003, I started my job here a year later. My main role is audience development. An example of a project I've been involved in is one called Diversity and Dialogue. It's about young people picking objects around the museum and writing interpretations of them, with the overall aim of promoting dialogue between young people of different faiths.
This sector finds it difficult to attract ethnic minorities. I think part of the problem is that museum work is often perceived as being for people with privileged knowledge and education, but the reality is different. The British Museum is taking many initiatives to diversify their audience and their staff. I enjoy being part of that.Reuse content