Imperial College is currently enjoying its highest level of employer activity on campus. Which makes all this talk of a recession seem like hyperbole. Elspeth Farrar, Director of the Careers Advice Service at Imperial College and Vice-President of AGCAS, gives GradWeb her assessment of the graduate market in these turbulent times.
If you believe everything you read in the media, you might be forgiven for thinking that the graduate market is about to fall off a cliff. In fact, some of the more pessimistic pundits almost revel in the economic decline staring us in the face. The banking crisis, recession and job losses – they claim – are just a taster for the true 1920s-style depression we are about to experience. These tough economic conditions make it harder for everyone to find work; and graduates, according to the media, are not immune from the problem.
Or are they? It’s easy to latch onto graduate recruitment as being a fall guy in an economic downturn, but with even The Prime Minister now talking openly about the ‘R’ word, are today’s graduates really going to find it harder to uncover the career they crave tomorrow? Or will graduate recruitment programmes continue to thrive, creating the next generation of leaders and empowering organisations with the talent they need to achieve their business objectives?
Few people are better qualified to examine this than someone who has a real measure of the graduate ecruitment market, someone liaising day-in, day-out with graduates and careers advisors. Elspeth Farrar is Director of the Careers Advice Service at Imperial College in London, which is consistently rated amongst the world’s leading universities and a major science-based institution. Simultaneously, she is also Vice- President of AGCAS, the professional association for higher education careers practitioners.
All signs point to sustained graduate recruitment
According to Elspeth, we may be in a recession, but on the surface the prospects for graduates appear very robust. “It is very early in the cycle to make predictions about the outcome for students and graduate recruiters, however there are signs that indicate continued recruitment in many sectors for the coming year,” she says. “Clearly, there will be an impact on some areas, particularly the financial sector and the investment banks. But we need to put it into context: investment banking is a very high profile line of recruitment, largely because of the remuneration; however the proportion of graduates going into the sector is relatively small.It is also worth noting that some banks are still recruiting for certain sectors. We’re continuing to see significant banking activity on campus, in particular for IT, operations, trading and divisions. It appears to be primarily the customer-facing positions that are cutting back.” Much of the apparent recruitment activity by the banks is entred around internship opportunities. This may be a way of hedging their bets right now by offering internships to penultimate year students, as opposed to full-time employment.”
It’s easy to become fixated by what’s taking place in the banking sector, but what about other industries – do they remain buoyant for graduates? The answer is, at the moment anyway, ‘yes’. “It’s at times like these that certain less high profile opportunities come to the fore,” says Elspeth. “Again, it’s hard to be precise, but areas like energy, public sector, engineering, and teaching appear to be maintaining their recruitment momentum and are poised to scoop up eager graduates.
In a boom economy, these sectors are easily overlooked by graduates – but today these employers should find it easier to target the right calibre of student. It is also worth noting that a relatively high proportion of graduates gain employment in smaller organisations with less structured or promoted graduate training schemes. So not everyone will be chasing after a graduate scheme with a ‘blue chip’ company.
Recession? Not in my lifetime
Graduate recruitment tactics seem to be changing among firms too. Most graduates are too young to have experience of the last recession in the early 1990s, when many companies called time on their recruitment programmes during the downturn. They suffered because of it and don’t want to be caught out again. That’s why more organisations see the advantage in recruiting graduates, so they have the appropriate staff in place when the upturn starts. “Part of the reason for this is demographics,” says Elspeth. “Certain industries have a disproportionate number of mature staff, the energy industry for example, and they need to recruit young graduates to maintain their operational capability – whatever the state of the market.”
For someone so closely associated with the graduates at Imperial College, Elspeth is well aware of their concerns. How do they see the graduate market? Are they worried about their employment prospects? “Our graduates are generally aware that the recruitment market might be tougher next year. There’s a huge amount of pressure on them to succeed, to get the all important 1st or 2:1, and also because of the debt they carry and parental and peer pressure. As a result students tend to be more career focused and driven than in the past. Many students will be working hard making applications, but also there is evidence that some will put off the application process in order to focus their attention on completing their assessments and examinations. For others, weathering the recession will be an opportunity take the year out they have been thinking about or possibly to stay on at university to gain further academic qualifications. This might be their solution to riding out any economic storm.”
There’s one more indicator pointing to the fact the graduate recruitment market is a complex environment. Imperial College is currently enjoying its highest ever level of employer activity on campus. Firms are queuing up to talk to Imperial’s graduates but it is unclear exactly what the offers on the table really are. Early next year we’ll have a clearer picture of whether that demand is transformed into real job offers. For now though, it’s largely business as usual.