Success means proving your worth

Smart graduates not only gain good degrees and relevant work experience, they also keep their finger on the pulse of the changing job market

The accountancy firm KPMG has launched an interactive campaign to encourage more students from non-business related degrees to consider a career in accountancy. Like a growing number of today's growth industries, including retail, construction and the public sector, it is desperately attempting to get graduates to ditch outdated stereotypes and consider working for them.

"Our research has found that many students still view a career as an accountant as being rigid and all about number crunching," says Pamela Alos, KPMG marketing manager. "But essentially we are at the heart of business decision making. We currently have 11 different entry routes available into the firm and we work across every industry in the UK."

So far, the campaign is working. Just 1 per cent of students who visited the interactive milk round experience in York perceived KPMG to be dynamic before the event, but on exit, 25 per cent had changed their minds. "I definitely wouldn't have considered joining an accountancy firm when I was studying but when I discovered the Business Foundation Programme, then I considered KPMG," says Katie Butler, who joined KPMG having graduated from Edinburgh University with a degree in law. "I've found it challenging but also really rewarding as I've been able to get involved in lots of work around social and environmental projects."

Given the radical changes in the graduate market in which many of yesterday's winners are today's losers and vice versa, today's students have no choice but to become more open-minded about where they will work. Indeed, Charles McCloud, head of recruitment at PricewaterhouseCoopers, believes accountancy has become the new investment banking. "There is a significant cohort of top graduates who, in the past, would have looked to go into banking and are now looking to go into accountancy," he says. This is largely because there are fewer opportunities in the latter and many of those that do exist within banking have become less attractive. Accountancy, on the other hand, now offers 23 per cent of today's graduate jobs, according to the latest survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

Top retailers including John Lewis and Debenhams are also trying to attract graduates who may not have set out to work in this sector. "Retail used to have the image of stacking shelves - not a job for graduates - and even the graduate recruitment programmes were seen to have less kudos than in other sectors," admits Wendy Massey, graduate recruitment manager at John Lewis, one of the growing number of retailers who report a steady increase in graduate intake. "But as people realise that retail offers graduates a fast track into senior management, with salaries and benefits to match, in a challenging and exciting environment, this image is changing."

Having intended to go into teaching, Robert Garnish, department manager of linens at John Lewis in Kingston upon Thames, changed his mind in his third year of university. "I was looking to gain some work experience over the summer and got on the John Lewis summer scheme. I took to it immediately, got on the graduate recruitment scheme and haven't looked back," he explains. "In some ways, there is a connection with teaching because a large part of my job is coaching and developing my staff, which is one of my favourite aspects of the work."

As part of its attempt to get more graduates on board, supermarket chain Tesco has launched an innovative scheme called The Debut Club programme, which is designed for the 30,000 students currently working at the firm. The scheme uses a central website to communicate careers advice, online training, financial information and job opportunities. Group human resources director, Clare Chapman, says: "We have a formal graduate scheme, but we also have many graduates coming in at lower levels and working their way up."

Terry Jones, careers adviser at the University of London, reports that graduates in a range of industries "are opting for a low-level position within a company and then working their way up". Accepting a low-level job gives you the specific advantage of applying for vacancies that are only advertised internally, he points out. During times of cutbacks, companies are often required to advertise internally first. And many jobs are not advertised at all, giving you the chance to avoid competition.

Likewise, the route of work experience taken by Robert Garnish is becoming an increasingly popular way for graduates to start their career. According to the latest What Do Graduates Do? Report, launched this month by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), Graduate Prospects and UCAS, degrees that provide the best employment prospects for students also have among the highest proportion of graduates returning to a previous employer.

The study highlights the career destinations of graduates six months following graduation and shows civil engineering graduates topping the employment table once again, with 78.6 per cent of graduates finding work. A quarter of those returned to a previous employer. Other top-rated degrees in the employment stakes showed a similar trait: of the seven in 10 design studies graduates who found work within six months, over a third had returned to a previous employer, followed by a fifth of electrical and electronic engineering, IT, building and sociology graduates.

"The message to students is loud and clear: get some relevant work experience under your belt while you're studying and you'll have a definite head start when you look for that all-important first job," says Mike Hill, chief executive of Graduate Prospects.

"Whilst it's the directly vocational subjects which offer the most scope for relevant work experience, developing a clear strategy with an HE careers adviser will help students focus their efforts on finding work experience that is most appropriate to their chosen field," adds Margaret Dane, chief executive of AGCAS.

AGCAS points to the rapid growth in graduate vacancies in teaching and in nursing, midwifery and social services - in fact, anywhere in local authorities and the civil service. Better levels of pay and pensions than in the past, as well as more structured career paths, have encouraged more people to look to it, says Tim Hodey, relationship management consultant for the National Graduate Development Programme, which was launched last year within local government. "The programme is a demonstration of our commitment to graduates and has attracted students from a range of backgrounds," he says.

Construction is a further growth area. Westbury Homes is just one example of a company within the industry that has recently introduced a graduate recruitment programme. Like many such companies, Westbury is after graduates with literally any degree subject. "We run two separate 18-month schemes. One is for people with construction-related degrees whom we train to become site managers. The other is for people with any degree subject whom we train to work in head office functions such as marketing and finance," explains Ashley Hawkins, training and development manager for Westbury.

There is a serious skills shortage within the construction industry, he admits, and graduate training schemes are being seen as one solution. "We've always taken on graduates, but by offering a formal fast-track training programme - together with an emphasis on continuous development - we hope to attract a greater number of high-calibre university leavers whom we aim to become our future leaders."

Just as there are current boom industries for graduates, there are sectors, including IT, and companies, including ICI and Shell, that have a far smaller piece of the graduate pie than in the past. "But this doesn't mean IT graduates, or those having set their sites on the big blue-chips which have decreased their graduate intake, should panic," assures Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR. "You just need to be more flexible about who you would work for. Lots of organisations are still employing IT specialists - for example in retail and the public sector."

Meanwhile, there is a host of small and medium-sized companies, specialising in anything from healthcare to technology, which are starting to invest in graduates for administrative and management jobs. These are not household names, are often regionally based and don't have the same pattern of recruitment as the big firms because they want to hire people immediately for vacancies they have on their books now.

'YOUR HEART HAS TO BE IN ACCOUNTANCY TO GET ON'

Fiona Gradey, 25, works in the HR department at Tesco

"I did a business management degree at Oxford Brookes and worked in the Tesco Hatfield store as part of the company's industrial placement programme, which now falls under the Debut scheme. I found retail to be exciting, fast-paced and constantly evolving, so I was really pleased when Tesco offered me a place on the store leadership graduate scheme upon completion of my degree.

"Since completing the scheme, I have worked in various sections of the store, including helping to run home shopping, running the café, working in personnel and as part of the graduate recruitment team.

"In fact, the variety is one of the greatest rewards of the job. I also enjoy the people side of retail and working in a sector where you can really see the difference you're making in your everyday work."

Rahul Satsangi, 23, is in his second year as a graduate trainee at PricewaterhouseCoopers

"I graduated from UCL with a degree in economics in 2001 and then went to work for Deutsche Bank for year as an intern. While there, I decided I wanted a professional qualification because the economy was doing badly and I wanted something to fall back on. I also have many family members in accountancy and it appealed to me. In addition, I found that although the money was much better than in accountancy, the hours were much longer. So I applied to what was then the big five and got accepted by PwC.

"I love the fact that the people are so friendly within accountancy and they really help you to get on. They let know areas you need to work on straight away. The downsides are that exam time can be really hard and you have to put your life on hold.

"Your heart has to be in accountancy to get on. If it isn't, it shows. Mine is and as a result, I really enjoy the work."

THE GRADUATE MARKET

The largest number of current graduate vacancies are in accountancy and professional services firms, engineering and industrial companies, law firms and retailers.

Over half of all graduate vacancies are in London or the South-east, with just one in 10 of all positions occurring in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In terms of career area, the most vacancies for graduates are working in chartered accountancy, general management, IT, retail or as a solicitor or barrister.

Graduate starting salaries have increased by 4.3 per cent in 2003, compared to the salary rates paid in 2002, with the median graduate starting salary for 2003 at £20,300.

The highest starting salaries offered are for graduate positions in investment banks, law firms, consulting or business service firms, law firms and oil companies.

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