Who wants a grad job?

Not, it seems, all of today's graduates. While employers have generous packages on offer, the priority for many young people is working a career around a lifestyle, says Clare Hargreaves

 

Undaunted by their burdens of debt, growing numbers of students are opting to head for the beach rather than the office after graduating. According to statistics compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), more than 4 per cent of 2003 graduates opted to go travelling before knuckling down to their careers.

And when they do knuckle down, not all are choosing fast-track jobs in big organisations. A growing number are deciding to work locally, set up their own businesses or live their dream by entering "risky" professions like acting, according to Mike Hill, chief executive of the official graduate careers organisation Graduate Prospects.

"Graduates are saying, for example, 'I'm 21, I'm going to be an actress or an artist. If it doesn't work out I'll retrain to be a teacher.' They are working their careers around their lifestyle."

Hill says this suggests that the generation dubbed in the US as the Millennials - the generation born in the Eighties - are more demanding about what they get out of life and place quality of life on an equal footing with success in a career. "This generation are keen to work hard but on their own terms. They see work as an extension of life rather than the other way around."

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), agrees. "Many graduates feel educated out. Education is a treadmill more than it's ever been. The gap year phenomenon is a growing trend."

As well as taking time out, before or during a career, students are becoming more demanding about the type of company they work for. A UK Graduate Careers High Fliers Survey in 2004 reported that 85 per cent of graduate job hunters said social responsibility was the most important characteristic they looked for in an employer.

Graduates' confidence reflects the fact that the economy is buoyant and there are plenty of jobs out there, according to Gilleard. A recent AGR report showed that the number of graduate jobs will increase by almost 15 per cent in 2005. Investment banking and accountancy are particularly strong. KPMG is taking on 800 graduates this year, compared to 635 last year, and it expects around 9,000 applications. Accenture is taking on 600, compared to 500 in previous years.

The boom in graduate jobs means that employers are competing to lure (and retain) the cream of the graduates by offering increasingly attractive packages, including generous holidays, salaries and "golden hellos".

Accenture, for instance, offers its graduate entrants a £10,000 welcome bonus on top of a starting salary of £28,500. Interestingly, the company also offers its new trainees the chance to travel - doing voluntary work abroad for its charitable organisation Accenture Development Partnerships - for six to eight weeks before starting work. The firm is also active in promoting mid-career breaks as part of its work-life balance policies.

Employers are also being more flexible about allowing deferred entries. At Rolls-Royce, for example, around 20 per cent of offers made for starting in autumn 2005 are deferred entries. KPMG said around 10 per cent of their applicants asked to defer. In addition a growing number of students leave applications until after they have got their degrees under their belts and their travel bugs out of their systems.

"We support and encourage this," says Ruth Stokes, KPMG's head of Graduate Recruitment. "Being flexible means we get good calibre people. They'll learn great skills while they are away which will only enhance their employability."

Tracy Ross, recruitment marketing manager for Rolls-Royce which takes around 150 graduates each year, warns that despite the internet it can be harder for graduates and employers to get in touch with each other once graduates have left university. She adds: "It will be interesting to see whether the travelling trend continues as increased fees impact even more on student debt levels."

One compensation for graduates is that starting salaries are robust, reaching as high as £35,000 in investment banking. According to the AGR, average starting salaries within nearly 300 graduate recruitment companies (employing around 6 per cent of all graduates) rose in 2005 by 4.8 per cent to £22,000 per year. Across all sectors, the average salary for a new graduate now stands at £16,393 according to figures compiled by Hesa.

But while sectors like investment banking and accountancy are attracting a healthy number of applicants, others are struggling to find enough high-calibre graduates. Some engineering and science and technology companies are having to look abroad for talent, according to Gilleard.

Often it's a problem of image, or the fact that students simply have not heard of certain jobs. Employers in retail often struggle to convey what working in the sector really involves. "A lot of graduates have pre-conceptions about retail which are unfounded," says Michael Nathan, head of graduate recruitment at John Lewis. "They think it's a mundane job, that involves being on the shop floor with the shelves and working long hours. These are all part of the job, but so is management responsibility. It's an incredibly people-orientated business. Our graduate schemes are important to find the senior managers of the future."

Tracy Ross of Rolls-Royce says sectors like operations management, purchasing and logistics often struggle to attract graduates because they do not know what they entail. "These don't register as career options. But people in operations management are high potential people who will manage factories and move to other management positions."

Despite the abundance of jobs, Ross says students should not be complacent. "Organisations are for ever changing," she says.

The writer is joint author of Lonely Planet's recently published 'The Career Break Book'

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