Rowena Forbes: It's important for students to be professional

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The Independent Online

It's a fact that many of this year's graduates may find the transition from academia to employment to be trickier than they imagine.

Surveys undertaken by the Association of Graduate Recruiters over the past three years reveal that, while the number of graduate vacancies is increasing, the percentage of these jobs which go unfilled is growing too. Over 43 per cent of participants in this year's survey reported a recruitment shortfall in 2006; up significantly from 17 per cent in 2005. Many anticipate similar problems this year, citing their ever-increasing requirements, and the subsequent difficulty of finding applicants who demonstrate the necessary skills, as the major issue.

One of the most desirable and yet elusive skills cited was commercial awareness. At the same time, one of the most frequently expressed complaints was that graduate recruits often proved ill-equipped to deal with clients and colleagues in the workplace.

While you might expect international students to need educating about the UK working environment, it seems that they are not the only ones. And perhaps it is not surprising. Moving from academia to employment involves a significant culture change.

Graduates may believe that they already possess the softer skills that employers want, such as good communication and team-working abilities - and, indeed, they may be correct. However, the ability to adapt them to a working, rather than academic, environment is a unique skill in itself.

Based on feedback from employers, The University of Manchester is developing resources dedicated to helping students make that transition. These aim to give students greater awareness of issues such as business etiquette; successful negotiation; appropriate levels of formality; office politics; adhering to company policies; networking; positive attitudes, and so on. In short, the aim is to raise student awareness of the importance of being professional.

Work experience can be crucial here, and is something that many graduate recruiters now expect to see on a CV. Part-time jobs, summer placements, a couple of weeks' work shadowing, or even volunteering can all provide real insight into the world of employment.

Still, as the number of unfilled graduate positions reveals, many graduates fall at the first hurdle; ie. being able to convince recruiters that they have what it takes to succeed in the job.

First impressions count, even before the interview stage. From the very first point of contact, students need to be aware that they are on display, and act accordingly. This may be at the application stage, or even before.

Careers fairs are a popular way for students to meet graduate employers and research potential career opportunities. However, they are also prime opportunities for students to make that all-important first impression.

The University of Manchester runs advice sessions for students to prepare them for the upcoming Graduate Recruitment Fair, which takes place in Manchester 13-14 June. Over 180 exhibitors are set to attend, looking for potential candidates for a wide range of graduate jobs and postgraduate courses which start this September.

In order to stand out from these crowd, students should focus on three key points: preparation, reflection and self-awareness. The first involves research: visiting the fair website (see below) in order to identify employers that interest them, and finding out as much as they can about these companies, the sectors they are in and the kinds of jobs and career development opportunities on offer.

Preparation also involves creating an up-to-date, professional CV to hand out to employers. The second point also comes into play: students should reflect on their own experiences, within and outside academia, and pick examples that prove to employers that they have the necessary skills and experience that would make them a desirable employee. These can be incorporated into a good CV, as well as provide potential topics for discussion.

Finally, self-awareness should entail acting in a professional manner. Demonstrating enthusiasm; making eye contact; acting confidently without being cocky; appearing relaxed, yet polite and controlled - all these may seem obvious, but they are in fact often forgotten. Yet they are, in fact, the tiny details that can help convince a potential employer that they have found someone who stands out from the crowd, who they could easily envisage performing as a competent professional within their organisation.

Graduate Recruitment Fair