Recruiters give their verdict on the prospects for HR graduates

The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) conference was held on 6 July. Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR, told Personnel Today: “When employers stop recruiting they tend to become invisible and, if that happens, when [the economy] takes off again their challenge to attract the best talent will be all the greater. Employers need to keep their profile and brand in front of students.” We spoke to delegates and other recruitment specialists about the outlook for HR graduates.

John Maxted, CEO of Digby Morgan, part of the Randstad Group

“Without a doubt, the large corporates have scaled back on their recruitment of HR graduates this year, but there are still opportunities for the class of 2009. I would suggest that perhaps they refocus their efforts – or at least consider – some of the fast-paced and hugely commercially minded SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) players that are often bucking the overall economic trend.

“It’s often in these smaller environments that the ‘go-getters’ will get the opportunity to gain some real variety, experience and exposure to a wide cross-section of the HR disciplines – especially, at the moment, in employee relations and compensation and benefits.

“Network as much as possible, develop your own relationships, and cold call your target companies directly. Perhaps lower your sights and offer yourself as a temporary HR administrator to get crucial practical experience and get your first step on the ladder.”

Andrew Mountney, director at recruitment firm Aspen Partners

“Most graduate recruitment teams have stayed the same size, or in some case have grown since last year, thanks to the increased volume of applications from graduates. The majority expect to hire either the same or more than last year.

“But if you look at HR jobs specifically, recruitment peaked in July last year, and June this year was the first month the number of opportunities has gone up since then.

“The people who have been hit hardest are those delivering on the recruitment at relatively junior levels, so recruitment administrators are far more likely to be unemployed now than recruitment managers.

Chris Muktar, director at graduate jobs community WikiJob

“More recently there have been signs of things improving at HR assistant and entry level. It has been slowing for a while but has now started to pick up. The recession is still here but it will pass, like recessions always do. By next year, I’m sure people will barely remember how it was.”

Ben Jackson, head of business development at graduate recruitment specialist GradWeb

“HR has been hit in terms of the number of graduate positions available. Quite understandably, given that budgets have been cut, HR departments generally are not recruiting in significant numbers. Having said that, there are still graduate jobs out there. But graduates are going to have to be more clever about what they are applying for. They should not assume that, just because a business is going through difficult times, there will not be opportunities within HR, particularly in areas such as employee benefits or organisational development.

“There is also often a synergy between graduate recruitment, HR and learning and development. And graduates should not underestimate the importance of a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) qualification. If they can get a job where there is the opportunity to study for their CIPD, even if the job itself is not a pure HR one, then they should take it because that qualification means no doors are closed.”

Gerry Wyatt, operations director at jobs board

“Graduates can still get HR jobs, and I know of a few employers that are looking for HR people or running schemes right now. But graduates need to be pragmatic in how they approach their search. If, for example, they are in London and there is an HR job available in Birmingham, they really do need to consider relocating. After all, they probably relocated to do their degree.

“Also, if you want to work for a particular organisation, it’s always easier to do it from the inside outwards. So if a role comes up, even if it’s not the one that you ideally want, you should still try and go for it. Then you can start to build up your transferable skills and, just as importantly, you will have a foot in the door. You really have to be very pragmatic about it at the moment.”

Jayne Cullen, head of graduate recruitment at TMP Worldwide

“The graduate recruitment market in general has suffered this year, but there are a similar number of HR graduate roles available now as in 2008. These are in short supply, so competition is fierce.

HR functions are always needed, never more so than in a downturn – from supporting restructuring to having to look at cost-reduction exercises. The role of HR is an important one, and a graduate role in the current climate is a great opportunity for anyone looking to start a career in the area as they will get to experience a wider variety of HR functions than they would normally get to see in a buoyant market.

Certain sectors, especially the public sector, are continuing to maintain their graduate programmes. For instance, the NHS is recruiting substantial numbers. In other sectors, including financial services, it is a mixed bag.”

Justin Spray, director at occupational psychologists Mendas

“Current HR graduates have a tremendous opportunity to bring fresh thinking and new perspectives to HR departments increasingly being challenged to make a real impact to businesses’ bottom lines. However, HR departments are looking for individuals with experience and expertise, so graduates who are fresh out of university with little experience may find it tough to break into the industry.

“Graduates should not think that the only route into HR is through internships and work experience in HR departments. HR needs people who can get things done, so any experience involving project management will be immensely valuable.

“Graduates need to get commercial. Understanding balance sheets, profit and loss and other business issues will equip you to handle the real pressures of working in HR. Graduates also need to demonstrate leadership skills, and the ability to influence others.

“Employers need to make the most of the market and bring people with fresh perspective and business nous into HR, so they are looking for great qualifications and commercial experience.”

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