If you’re a recent graduate, you have lots of reasons to be cheerful. For a start, you have walked across stage, balancing a board on your head while wearing a trip-hazard, as ceremony demands. Degree in hand, you’re ready to embark on your post-university life.
The employment market is finally showing signs of renewed life. While some areas (including the public sector and local government) are still struggling, others, such as accountancy and construction, are on the up. Office for National Statistics data currently puts unemployment at 7.4 per cent, its lowest rate since 2009.
You’re also part of a graduating cohort with unique skills. “Recent graduates are among the most technologically savvy and digitally connected classes in history,” says Natalie Waterworth, co-founder of talentedheads.com, a career guidance website. She explains that employers are looking for IT-literate candidates who can adapt quickly to the changing work environment, which gives you a distinct advantage. “Being malleable is a valuable skill that graduates of 2014 possess.
Recent economic conditions have shaped this generation, making them adaptable, resilient and creative.”
Plus, the very nature of work is changing, and new roles are being created that simply didn’t exist a decade ago. “Job titles such as app developer, search engine optimisation specialist, growth hacker, social media expert, and user experience designer are all very new, but legitimate careers,” says Waterworth. “The digital revolution is creating new opportunities across all industries, and new graduates are best placed to fill these gaps.”
However, it’s important to be realistic. Recent research by totaljobs.com found that some 24 per cent of graduate jobseekers have been looking for work for more than 12 months – competition is fierce.
Yet Mike Fetters, head of future talent for the site, is upbeat. “Though there are still challenges within the graduate jobs market, we hope to see a rise in total graduate vacancies in the early part of this year.”
Of course, work might not be your first target. Options for graduates also include travel, postgraduate study or volunteering, to name a few. But if your career is on your mind, what should your first steps be, and how can you meet the challenges of the graduate job market?
Starting your search
The first step is to be prepared, mentally, for the task ahead. “You’ll need patience and a thick skin,” says Mike Hill, chief executive officer of Graduate Prospects. “Very few people get the first job they apply for, or are interviewed for. The key thing is to learn from those experiences.”
At the very beginning of the process, Hill recommends getting a part-time job if at all possible, “if only to take away the panic that sees you applying for 10 jobs a week. It’ll give you the chance to put together well thought-through applications once a week instead – that’s still 50 a year.” There are other advantages, such as filling in any gaps between graduation and interview that may otherwise open up on your CV.
Focus is important, too. Fetters believes that graduates who fire off applications in all directions do themselves a disservice.
“By looking for work in fields and industries in which you don’t have experience, you’re more likely to get rejections. By narrowing your search you can focus your energy on the jobs you really want.”
Within your chosen industries it’s still important to think creatively, perhaps applying to regional or local offices as well as through national (or international) channels. Hill stresses that as far as a rewarding career goes, London is not the only option. “There are lots of jobs in respectable, well paid and interesting small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) beyond the capital, and people live a good life working for them. I think that’s important to remember.”
With potential targets mapped out, prep your professional arsenal. This means a killer CV, a spotless online brand (Google yourself if you think you have nothing to hide) and a way with cover letters. Don’t forget that your university careers service isn’t closed to you: most, if not all, allow graduates access for a few years after they leave. Many will also assist graduates from other institutions, which is good news if you’ve relocated since leaving.
Getting advice is crucial, but Chris Garnett, a career management adviser at Manchester Business School, under - stands that people aren’t always comfort - able with the idea. “It often feels awkward to open yourself up, and students can feel exposed or that they are going to be judged negatively,” he says.
However, don’t let this stop you, as a professional adviser can really make a difference. “Getting an experienced and independent view, with a lack of any personal agenda, is very rare in life,” says Garnett. “To the point where senior executives will pay large sums of money to secure this kind of service.”
One area to get help is with your CV, which is still essential despite the age of the online application, according to Fetters. A key job is to eliminate gaps, he says. “When reading through CVs, employers will be looking for reasons to dismiss jobseekers. Gaps are a red flag, so it’s important to have reasons for why you weren’t studying or working during certain periods.”
Likewise, you’ll need to smarten up your social media brand, establishing an up-to-date professional presence and deleting any YouTube relics left over from your second year housewarming party. Employers really do check, says Isabelle Minneci, HR director at L’Oreal. “We’re increasingly using social media to interact with potential recruits, so I’d recommend graduate jobseekers invest time in building an active profile on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.”
Alongside your spruced-up online persona, Minneci recommends an expanded knowledge of current affairs, as understanding the economic and political context of the industry you’ll be working in is vital. “In between applying for roles and preparing for interviews, take the time to consume as much national and international news as possible,” she says. “It’s quite common for employers to ask industry news - related or general news-re - lated questions during interviews.”
If it all sounds daunting at first, Hill counsels jobseekers not to set unrealistic targets.
Remember: you might not be at board level immediately, and you won’t get everything right first time. “I do think people put too much pressure on themselves when they graduate,” he says. “It’s a time to experiment, and you are allowed to make some mistakes.”
Equally, you’re not expected to be the finished article, whether that’s at interview or on your first day at your new job. “Employers don’t expect graduates to arrive knowing how to do the job immediately,” says Minneci. “They want to see a willingness to learn and the boundless energy of youth!”
Enthusiasm and passion are key qualities to get across during the application process, she adds. “Think about the reasons why you really want the role you’re applying for, and what you could offer that someone else can’t.”
Build your experience
Unfortunately knock-backs and rejection are an inevitable part of the job seeking process and while feeling disheartened is natural, Minneci suggests a few ways to avoid the negative feelings taking over.
These include finding a mentor and developing your professional network, and asking questions when things don’t go according to plan. “If you’ve been unsuccessful in an interview, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback – it’s the best way to learn and you can then put what you’re told into practice.”
Another area to focus your energies on is seeking relevant work experience and internships, which remain – despite the controversy around unpaid graduate labour – great ways to develop workplace knowledge, transferable skills and useful contacts, especially if interview feedback points to a lack of relevant experience.
Careers advisers are good sounding boards when it comes to seeking full-time and work experience positions or you could try online resources such as milkround.com and graduatetalentpool.direct.gov.uk.
Fetters emphasises the importance of your existing connections. “Make the most of your personal network,” he says. “Friends of friends, and even parents of friends, may be able to create important links between you and potential employers.”
It’s all about getting a foot in the door. Even if your conversations don’t lead to a placement or a job, you’ll be learning what you need to do to progress. “Don’t be nervous about asking for help, as persistence often pays off,” says Fetters.
We’ve probably all heard a few cautionary tales around work experience, so proceed carefully. “Take as much work experience and as many internships as you can, but be wary of those who are out to exploit people in weak positions,” says Hill.
Weigh up the pros and cons of unpaid work and be realistic, he advises – a few weeks of work shadowing may be worthwhile, but six months making sales calls for nothing is a different matter. “If you do a proper job you should be properly paid. You should go into these things with your eyes open and don’t forget to use social media to check an organisation’s reputation.”
It can be a gruelling process, but the end results are worth it, and not only as a means to woo employers. “Work experience and internships are a great way to help find the right career,” says Minneci. “Finding out what you’re passionate about is really important and helps you decide what you want to do.”
Ultimately, workplace experience will make your CV stand out and shows that you can apply yourself in a range of different roles and fields. Plus, it’s a chance to develop skills in teamwork, management and leadership, all of which are important attributes to display at interview. “It also demonstrates to a future employer that you’ve looked to build your strengths,” says Minneci, “that you take your career seriously and, of course, that you’re hard working.”
If work isn’t the place for you just yet, further study is another avenue you could explore, whether for personal satisfaction or career advancement – although it pays to remember that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Postgraduate study opens the door to deeper understanding of a subject and a radically different study experience, and there are professional advantages too, according to Garnett.
“A postgraduate qualification helps to differentiate students in the employment market and can be a useful ‘badge’ throughout their career.”
If you’re heading further down the education route with a view to boosting your career prospects, it’s important to know from the outset how you expect the course to help you. This will help when you set out the benefits to employers later on, says Garnett.
“Most employers will want to see a well thought-out plan. The course ought to be at least broadly aligned with a small number of career goals to make it easier to justify and explain.”
You might also want to consider shorter courses. Many universities offer massive open online courses (Moocs), often free, which may enhance your knowledge and keep the grey cells ticking over. Languages are another valuable tool that employers value, or you could brush up your digital skills – sites such as Codeacademy and Skillshare offer cheap (or free) courses. “Extra-curricular self-guided study like this demonstrates to employers that you are keen, willing to learn, and ambitious,” says Waterworth, “and it only takes a few hours.”
Whether you’re investigating work, study or even a travel break, the question of “what next?” after graduation is an exciting one – but it’s natural to be daunted by all that freedom, too. While you’re pondering, a little tender loving care isn’t a bad idea, Hill suggests. “Look after yourself. Don’t get a tattoo on your forehead just because you’re unemployed. When you go to an interview, you’ve got to make an impact when you walk in, so stay well and keep fit.”
Beyond that, it’s worth bearing in mind that life after graduation isn’t a sprint.
With perhaps 50 years of working life alone ahead of you, this is a long-distance event. Don’t be afraid to change track, or even enter the odd cul-de-sac, says Hill; you never know where the opportunities may lie, or where they might lead you. “Life has twists and turns you can never foresee.”
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