"The financial and IT markets have suffered considerably in recent years, but graduate recruitment is starting to improve," says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR). "I don't think we're going to see any dramatic increases in vacancies, but the future is certainly looking brighter."
To make the most of this upturn, high-flyers should be flexible in their career choices, he advises. "Look across sectors," he says. "Take accountancy, for example. It's often not realised that increasing numbers of organisations in anything from utilities and fashion and from local government to health authorities are now hiring accountants. It's a similar case for IT. You shouldn't think exclusively of employers like Microsoft and Siemens. You can add Standard Life or any bank to that list because they too employ IT specialists at top graduate level."
Consider tweaking your career aspirations, he adds. "Many graduates who would have gone into investment banking in the past are finding that accountancy is not just a good second best, but often a favourable alternative as it is becoming increasingly challenging and exciting and offers a less stressful working environment."
Smaller companies are not to be avoided, he says. "You'll need to demonstrate all the same skills and competencies that you would to a multinational, as well as showing that you can be adaptable and turn your hand to anything. Often, graduates who work for small companies wind up getting more experience and earlier responsibility." According to a new survey by the Association of MBAs, MBA graduates who work for SMEs earn more than those employed by large organisations.
Even if your heart is set on a huge corporation, it's worth remembering that they'll value your experiences at a smaller firm, says Gilleard. You'll be able to strengthen your CV, get work experience, network and build confidence. "The trick is not to waste time waiting for your dream job offer in these tough times. A lot of graduates feel guilty about this, but there's really no harm in it. The important thing is to have a short-term as well as a long-term plan and not to lose sight of the latter."
At the top of the agenda for any high-flying job seeker during tough economic times should be doing everything possible to stand out, says Gilleard. "Work experience is absolutely the best way of doing this," he says. "All our surveys show that employers in all sectors rate it very highly. While it's advisable to do this as early as possible, it's not too late to get some experience under your belt after graduation - perhaps even as part of a gap year."
The benefits of work experience, he says, include competence building and the ability for graduates to choose which kinds of working environment and area of work suit them. "In addition, working in a successful workplace makes you feel more confident about that sector and that kind of job. It strengthens your CV and gives you something to talk about when you go through the selection procedures. But you must make sure you can demonstrate exactly what you have learnt from your experiences."
Making a good first impression, for example at careers fairs, is important too, says Gilleard. "I've been carrying out focus groups with graduate recruiters this week. So many said it's so refreshing when a graduate walks up to them and says, 'I've chosen your company because I know you employ accountants and over the past six months, my career ambitions have moved in this direction'. Recruiters told me that there are so many - even top - graduates who just don't sell themselves.
University and college careers services are a well-kept secret, Gilleard says. "Not enough graduates use them - and you're entitled to do so for two years after graduating. They have files on employers, research facilities, information on careers fairs and presentations, as well as one-to-one careers advice on issues such as presentational skills."