Tough times for graduates, but top candidates can still find jobs

Timothy Barber
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THE TALK this week may have been all about healthy bank profits and the return of bonuses, but that will be cold comfort to university graduates struggling to kick off their City careers. As stories circle of highly qualified grads finding themselves locked out of training positions, with companies being forced to cut intakes and reduce graduate programmes, a report published last month reveals the extent to which circumstances have swung against the class of 2009.<br /><br />The Graduate Recruitment Survey, produced bi-annually by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), describes a &ldquo;bleak situation&rdquo; in which a majority of organisations are offering fewer graduate vacancies than last year, with the gloom particularly pronounced in the Square Mile. According to AGR, vacancies for graduate investment bankers and fund managers have fallen this year by 40.2 per cent, with banking and professional services down 23 per cent and accountancy/professional services by 20.6 per cent.<br /><br />The survey was conducted across 226 of AGR&rsquo;s member organisations, including a substantial number of the City&rsquo;s major institutions, and reflects the extent to which things have deteriorated beyond expectations during the year. AGR&rsquo;s winter survey (published in February) predicted an overall fall in graduate vacancies of 5.4 per cent this year, but last month&rsquo;s report showed that the reality has turned out to be almost five times that, just short of 25 per cent. To put that in context, vacancies in the 2002 slump only fell by 6.5 per cent.<br /><br /><strong>PERSPECTIVE NEEDED</strong><br />But do such bleak numbers really tell the full story? AGR&rsquo;s director of operations, Gary Argent, says that while the figures are startling, perspective is needed. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s not the case that growth has been wiped out and there are no jobs left,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;The market had grown very significantly over the previous few years since 2004, and the decline does need to be seen in that context.&rdquo;<br /><br />Nowadays recruitment managers cringe at the thought of the largescale cuts in 2002/03 that left firms bereft of talent once the upturn came, leading to frenzied up-skilling. Martin Birchall, managing director of graduate recruitment researcher High Fliers, says that while the situation is as tough for the class of 2009 is as it&rsquo;s been in a decade, the fact that major institutions have resisted cancelling graduate recruitment altogether shows lessons have been learned.<br /><br />&ldquo;Certainly, students have been looking in other areas, adapting themselves and sending out more applications, yet fewer than normal have been getting jobs,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;In 2002 the banks pulled the shutters down. This time they&rsquo;ve scaled back, but they&rsquo;ve all continued some form of recruiting, and target numbers for 2010 are beginning to look a bit more healthy.&rdquo;<br /><br />But full health will be some way off. Even if things are slightly easier for those graduating in 2010, they will still find themselves in the most competitive job market of the last 20 years &ndash; especially if they must vie for jobs with those who miss out this year. <br /><br /><strong>READJUSTMENT HAS POSITIVES</strong><br />And the next wave of graduates may not find themselves with quite the earning potential of their older peers. Another of the eye-catching statistics in AGR&rsquo;s report shows that average graduate salaries have frozen this year, for the first time since AGR began its surveys in 1991, with law and accountancy/professional services graduates actually seeing a drop. However even here there is positive news to be found: in its February survey, AGR predicted a 9 per cent drop in salaries for banking/financial services grads. In actuality a tiny increase has been maintained &ndash; another sign of the banks&rsquo; determination to hang on to talent in readiness for an upturn.<br /><br />Some might look back blissfully at the boom years when some organisations failed even to fill their ever-expanding graduate programmes, and students aiming for the City could all but guarantee themselves a position. But Jonathan Black, head of the careers service at Oxford University, believes the readjustment in graduate recruitment has its positives. He says companies are going to be taking a more astute, targeted approach to the milk round process, moving away from expensive, crowded events aimed to hoover up candidates with minimal quality control. Conversely, the onus is now on students to start planning their careers, contacting companies and arranging placements from the moment they enter university.<br /><br />&ldquo;Graduates are finding it difficult now, and it may not be as easy to do a non-vocational subject and assume the City&rsquo;s bound to want you, but it&rsquo;s not a disaster and the roles will be there for top candidates,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;For the past few years students have had the luxury of being able to be a bit complacent, and if that&rsquo;s dropped a bit, it&rsquo;s really a return to business as usual. It&rsquo;s a more competitive atmosphere, but I don&rsquo;t think that&rsquo;s a bad thing at all.&rdquo;