Simon Howard asks whether the graduate recruitment industry serves employers
well and if it is time for the old order to move over and make room for new
As a student back in the mid-1970s, I remember how the privilege of being in
higher education was drummed into us through being reminded that we were the
"top 10 per cent" – the crème de la crème.
After what is now called a gap year (which was frowned on then), I joined a
recruitment company where, on the basis of being a recent graduate, I was
assigned to graduate recruitment accounts. Here I discovered that graduate
recruitment was all about attracting the top 10 per cent – the crème de la
Which is exactly what graduate recruitment was – recruiting the top 10 per
cent of the top 10 per cent.
By definition, it was elitist. It was about recruiting highly
career-aspirant young people to be the top managers and scientists of tomorrow.
But that was then. Of the class of 1981, 32,547 were in employment in the UK
a year later. The equivalent figure for the class of 2001 will be well over
What’s more, in 1981 only 34 per cent were women, but in 2001 they will make
up nearly 60 per cent of the total.
"The graduate market is no longer the homogeneous population it once
was," says Richard Pearson, director of the Institute of Employment
Studies. "It now represents about 40 per cent of all young people and is
much more diverse – the majority are women, there are many more mature
students, many taking part-time courses and 10 per cent come from an ethnic
Pearson believes employers have yet to fully appreciate many of the changes.
"The nature and aspirations of this audience are very different. For
example, 20 per cent want to go travelling before settling down, and others
want to wait until they’ve graduated before applying for jobs.
"Yet many of the structured recruitment programmes only reinforce the
traditional graduate stereotype and the traditional recruitment timetable. In
fact, only around 10 per cent of graduates end up working for a ‘traditional’ graduate
But just as the employers might not understand the student market, the
student market doesn’t understand employers.
"Students still don’t understand that they are at university to develop
all their skills, and that means their core transferable skills," says
David Thomas, executive of the Careers Research and Advisory Centre.
"Young people need to better understand the world of work and what
employers are looking for."
Thomas believes all parties must share the blame. "For many academics,
core skills don’t form even part of their vocabulary. Although they are
resource-constrained, the careers advisory services could do more, and I’m not
sure employers effectively communicate their needs."
Despite enormous changes in the market, Anne Marie Martin, head of the
University of London Careers Advisory Service, is not convinced employers are
"We still see employers are themselves using the same old methods and
making the same mistakes," she says.
"For example, with changes in course structure and job-hunting
behaviours, it is risible that we still have to deal with closing dates. The
more progressive employers have rolling programmes, because the old recruitment
timetable is out the window, but many employers still try and stick to it."
Lack of consistency
For Martin, one of the greatest barriers to change is that there is little
consistency in the people the CAS deals with.
"We see an increasingly high turnover of company representatives. They
spend the first year learning how to do it and the second handing it over to
someone else," she says. That’s a good reason for practices changing as
little as they do – no-one is around long enough to genuinely review
But it’s also difficult to change when there are so many vested interests
keen to maintain the status quo.
Through the 1970s and 80s, a whole industry grew up around the traditional
world of graduate recruitment, and as employers know, nothing is cheap. Take
the directories: a standard double-page entry in Prospects costs £6,150, while
in the Hobsons directory it is £7,150 or £7,800.
What’s worse is that the circulation of these publications is totally
unaudited. As an employer, you have to rely on the publisher’s word for how
many it circulates, to where and when. Right now, there are over 280,000 final
year students in universities, and yet Hobsons distributed only "100,000
to the campuses we know our clients want to target".
But it’s not just the role of the careers publishers that is being called
into question – arguably, all on-campus recruiting is in decline. High Fliers
Research found this year that only 40 per cent of final year students were
applying for jobs, compared with 49 per cent just five years ago.
"I’m not so sure employers have grasped the significance of the changes
in the higher education population," says Carl Gilleard, chief executive
of the Association of Graduate Recruiters.
"With fewer undergraduates looking for jobs while at university,
employers are going to have to be more flexible in the way they attract and
So where are the new approaches going to come from – the Internet? Not if
the current experience is anything to go by. It has arguably made a student’s
task of finding a career more complex – even if you stick to the most
frequently mentioned job sites, there are more than 20 sites to trawl through.
And if you are an employer, which do you choose, particularly when there is
a total absence of any data on their effectiveness?
Applying online is an even sorrier tale. For a start, all that many
employers have done is replicate paper-based processes online – causing
applicants to spend anything up to three hours completing structured
High Fliers found that one in three career seekers had given up because of
The Internet has created new options, such as e-mail, but at £1 per address,
I find it opportunist, to say the least.
More insidiously, a number of organisations are trying to create massive
graduate databases. My worry is that if they are successful, they will exercise
a control on the graduate market which cannot be in either employers’ or
I see a massive change in the graduate population that is not reflected in
employers’ recruitment processes. Employers are partly to blame, and the fact
that many still regard recruitment as a second-class activity doesn’t help.
But the industry seems to have feet of clay. Despite much of what it hails
as innovation, it still seems to work from the notion that graduate recruitment
is about skimming the top 10 per cent off the top 10 per cent. That’s fine for
the 10 per cent of employers who target that market – but what about the other
90 per cent?
Simon Howard is a founder of Work Communications, a Sunday Times columnist
and chairman of the Recruitment Society The AGR Annual Conference is on 16-17 July.
Contact 01926 623236