With about 200,000 students graduating every year, Philip Whiteley asks if
they are still a degree ahead of the rest when it comes to the best jobs and
the best salaries
Another year, another graduate survey; but for how much longer? A generation
ago, as the baby boomers reached adulthood, graduates represented the top 5 per
cent of cerebral potential. There was kudos to having a degree, and huge
benefits to the business in recruiting and developing them. Top employers
descended annually on campus in the mysteriously-named milk round.
The modern labour market is different. There is nothing so special about
being a graduate anymore, with about 200,000 graduating each year – double the
number of the late 1980s.
For an increasing number of jobs one may appoint a graduate or one may not;
personal qualities can be more important.
"Graduate jobs, recruitment and job search will be integrated with the
workings of the wider recruitment market. The milk round and campus recruitment
will account for only a minority of the jobs," the latest Institute for
Employment Studies Graduate Survey concludes.
Many of the remaining graduates compete with non-graduates for ordinary jobs
on ordinary salaries. For 1999 the Association of Graduate Recruiters recorded
a drop in hiring for specialist graduate programmes for the first time in the
"There will still be a distinct activity around graduate
recruitment," said Richard Pearson, director of the Institute for
Employment Studies. "It is not so much that the graduate recruitment scene
has disappeared; it is just there is growth in other forms of
The majority of people leaving university now find employment through the
standard routes, such as newspaper adverts or the Internet. BT announced last
year that it will cease to produce conventional brochures and will receive only
on-line applications. Others will surely follow.
In the larger employers, devolution of recruitment to the business units
exacerbates the trend. It no longer fits with the business structure to have a
national programme for hiring.
The type of job on offer forces a shift away from purely academic prowess,
Pearson adds. "Qualifications are no guarantee of the personal skills that
increasingly all sorts of jobs require – such as teamworking, motivation,
initiative, communication skills. There is more of a customer focus; you cannot
be a boffin in the chemist department; you have to be able to communicate with
colleagues in the IT, the marketing or production departments."
But it is too soon to report the death of the specialist programme for
Employers still form their own view of which are the top universities,
business schools and engineering institutes and sell themselves aggressively to
the elite, while for the specialist professions such as accountancy or teaching
recruiters still look to the campus.
Some firms even report that they have not recruited sufficient numbers to
the specialist programmes. This does not necessarily mean there will be an
expansion of such initiatives, which tend to be expensive.
The alternative is to open the fast-track programmes to current employees –
many of whom are graduates who entered through other routes, said Carl
Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters.
"Standards have been rising," he said. "Employers, rather
than take risks on what is a very heavy investment, would leave places
unfilled. If you are consistently under-reaching targets by 10 per cent maybe
eventually you have to say the targets are too high, or change the selection
Powergen, is to offer places on its graduate trainee programme this year to
Gilleard said developments like this reflect the acknowledgement by many
firms that they already employ large numbers of graduates – some of whom may
have entered at a junior level.
"We sometimes forget that once people graduate they do have to work;
they have debts. They have to go into whatever job they can get to earn some
money, and to build their CV and work record.
"All the research suggests that people who do that stand a better
chance of getting on than those who spend a year not working."
The fact they failed to gain a fast-track place on leaving university does
not mean they lack the potential, as any selection process is imperfect and
will miss people of real ability.
The option of looking at existing staff raises the contentious issue of age
as the population becomes more mature, and whether employers focus too much on
While large firms may have a 15-year programme for developing top managers,
ruling out a proportion of older people for entry, not all schemes are so
‘Narrowing the field’
Pearson, of the IES, argues that employers are "unnecessarily narrowing
the field" by focusing on young people. Recruiters will have to look at
how and where they attract people, and not be overly targeted at graduates –
with the caveat that not all graduates are young.
Terry Gorman, president-elect of the local government personnel managers’
group Socpo, argues that employers, most of which are still instinctively
ageist, are in for a huge shock. "The ageing population has major
implications for the personnel profession. We are going to end up with major
Government actuaries anticipate that within 15 years there will be about 2
million fewer people in the 30- to 44-year age group and about 2 million more
aged between 45 and 59.
Those who missed the boat at 21 and did not immediately land a fast-track
post at a blue-chip firm have more cause than ever to regard it as nothing more
than a minor setback.
For employers, the awareness that a wider range of posts require far more
than academic abilities demands a broadening of recruitment activities.
The milk round has a future, but its status as the primary route to the top
brains is now under challenge.
There is no such thing as a typical graduate post any more, the 2000
Institute for Employment Studies Graduate Survey concluded. It identified the
• Fast-track management trainees for large employers
• Specialist professions such as accountancy, engineering and teaching
• "Graduate-level" administrative and management jobs with limited
• Lower-level jobs where graduates can add value
• The wider labour market, competing with non-graduates