Graduate finances: getting a job

20 May 2009

With unemployment continuing to rise and no sign of the recession ending anytime soon, 2009 may well go down in history as one of the worst possible years in which to graduate.

No wonder confidence among final-year university students is at a 15-year low; a survey of more than 16,000 students on the verge of graduating recently revealed that just 36% expect to find a graduate job when they leave university.

High Fliers Research, which carried out the survey, says that 52% of students feel the prospect of finding work is very limited - and despite a jump in the number of applications for graduate jobs, the number of third-year students receiving an offer of work has fallen by a third.

Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers Research, says a significant number of employers have cut their graduate recruitment programmes or are delaying taking on new trainees until the economic situation improves.

“Final-year students due to leave UK universities this summer are gloomy and frustrated about their employment prospects. Although many students began their job search earlier than usual and made an increased number of applications to employers, noticeably fewer have been successful in securing a graduate position than last year,” he says. 

The current landscape

If you are on the verge of finishing your studies and will be looking for a job soon, then be prepared for a tough time.

The latest employment data shows that the number of job vacancies has fallen by 230,000 over the past year, with the number of people in employment decreasing by 126,000 in the first three months of 2009 alone.

According to the Trade Union Congress, people aged under 30 are among the worst affected by the increase in unemployment. Recent graduates have been particularly hard hit because in many cases they lack hands-on experience.

Many graduating students are using the economic climate to influence their career choices. High Fliers Research found that one in six students has deliberately targeted employers deemed to offer the best job security, and applications to banking, finance and property firms have fallen.

A third of those asked said they would have to accept any job they were offered, regardless of their own career ambitions. Teaching, the media and marketing are the most popular industries for the Class of 2009, although accountancy, engineering and public sector organisations have also seen a boost.

Despite forking out for three years of study, graduates can expect to see starting salaries decrease in light of the recession. High Fliers found that expected starting salaries have dipped to an average of £22,300 – making 2009 the only year that salaries haven’t increased since 1995.

A third of organisations are paying new recruits between £20,000 and £25,000 while a quarter pay more than £30,000. But only one in six employers – chiefly from the legal and banking sectors – are expecting to pay starting salaries in excess of £35,000 this year.

When you consider that the median salary in the UK was £24,000 in 2008 (according to the Office for National Statistics), these graduate starting salaries don’t look too bad.

However, as expected, companies have cut back on the number of graduates they are employing. High Fliers reports that recruitment targets for 2009 have been cut by 17% since September 2008, with firms expecting to hire almost 3,400 fewer graduates this year than originally planned.

Financial firms have made the biggest cuts, especially investment banks. However, the majority of firms do not expect to cut their targets further in 2010.

Despite the tough market for graduates, The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) urges students to continue to look hard for work.

“It is really important that graduates coming into the market this year do not despair and assume that there are no jobs whatsoever out there,” says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR. “Though there is certainly nervousness among recruiters about the impact of the recession on their business, not all have shut up shop by any means and a very significant number are still looking for bright graduates to take on.”

And Mike Hill, chief executive of Graduate Prospects, a career advice services, says the recession is actually a good time for firms to recruit graduates – as it ensures they have “talent” in place once the upturn happens.

“We anticipate a reduction in the amount of money spent on graduate recruitment over the next couple of years, but currently many businesses are continuing to spend on branding and trying to maintain their graduate recruitment programmes - even if they're only low running at a percentage of last year's,” he adds.

Remember, while it is a tougher market, it is not impossible to find work and the majority of graduates are likely to do so within six months. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), just 5.6% of 2007’s graduates were believed to be unemployed six months after gaining their qualification.

Three years after leaving university, around 80% of graduates are in full or part-time work and 14% are continuing their studies, according to Hesa. Just 2% are unemployed.

What to do

1. Consider work experience

Whatever line of work you fancy getting into, you’ll find that having some work experience under your belt will improve your chances of getting a paid job. While it might be a bit galling to have to work for free, setting yourself a limited period of time to volunteer or intern is a good way to boost your CV – as long as you can afford it.

If possible, students should try to do work experience during their studies – by volunteering over the weekend, holidays or even during the week if they have enough time to spare.

Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, says: “Students are increasingly aware of what will help them succeed in the workplace, but they must take the development of their wider competencies as seriously as they take their studies.”

Even if you’ve already graduated, it isn’t too late to do some work experience. A few hours in on the internet should throw up plenty of companies you might fancy interning with; simply write a polite and brief letter or email explaining who you are and what you want to do.

One word of warning however – blanket emails are notoriously easy to spot, so try and make each covering letter you write relevant to the organisation in question. You should also include your CV (see below).

Corinne Mills, managing director of and author of 'You're Hired’, says: “Having good and up-to-date experience is one of the most important things you can do – not only will it give you something to talk about and show you have good work ethic, it will also provide you with transferable skills that you can use to show what you can bring to the organisation.”

Even if you only manage to get a part-time job waitressing, or volunteer work for a charity, be sure you make the most of it. “When hiring graduates, employers are not looking for lots of experience – they are looking for potential,” adds Mills. “The best way to show you have potential is by talking about the things you have done and the skills they have equipped you with.”

2. Update your CV or portfolio

Make sure you keep your CV up-to-date: include your contact details; educational and employment history; key skills and a brief list of your relevant interests. Generally speaking your CV should be no more than two pages long, but make sure you tailor it to each job you apply for.

Remember, you should never lie or stretch the truth on a CV. “If you get offered a job and it later emerges you’ve lied, you could get fired,” explains Mills. “Employers are very fastidious about checking graduates' details - especially their grades - so don’t be tempted to adjust a few figures to impress them.”

Your covering letter, meanwhile, should never be more than one-page long. Use the job description as a base, and try to show exactly how you meet the requirements and how you will benefit the company if it hires you. If you don’t have a job description, then do your research and try and base your letter around the skills you believe are important for the role.

Make sure you get a friend or family member to check it; incorrect spelling or poor grammar will not do you any favours.

Remember your university's careers service will provide you with information and guidance for up to three years after graduation. Alternatively you can use the facilities of your local university Careers Service.

2. Finding jobs

As well as looking in the national and local press, make the most of what the internet has to offer. It’s well-worth signing up to recruitment newsletters; you never know what jobs could turn up in your inbox.

If you know the sort of job you’re after, then this should make your search easier. You can target specialist recruitment firms or publications; for example, or Marketing Week for media and marketing jobs.

Some newspapers also advertise different sectors on different days. The Guardian, for example has a media section on Monday, education supplement every Tuesday and a social work and public sector section on Wednesdays. Meanwhile, The Evening Standard advertises PA and secretarial jobs on Mondays.

Online employment agencies, such as and, are good places to hunt out vacancies or even post your CV. The Directgov website also carries vacancies.

Don’t forget to make the most of JobCentre Plus – as well as advertising vacancies, its website gives advice on writing your CV.

Finally, sign up to employment agencies that specialise in your chosen career path – remember, you shouldn’t have to pay for this service.

However, as well as keeping an eye open for jobs, it’s worth being proactive. “Applying for vacancies through the obvious routes means you’ll come into competition with tens of thousands of competitors,” says Mills. “Creativity really pays off. Approach companies you’d like to work for directly to find out if they have any positions to fill, or could offer you work experience.”

She also recommends making the most of your connections. While you may feel uncomfortable about tapping up university tutors, your parent’s friends or neighbours, if they are in a position to help you the chances are that they will.

“Using your contacts is vital,” says Mills, “not only in finding your first job but as part of your long-term career strategy.”

The National Graduate Recruitment Exhibition might also be worth visiting, not least because it will give you the opportunity to speak to companies face-to-face.

4. Interviews

The key to a successful interview is research. Do as much background preparation as possible into the company in question and vacant position. You could even telephone the firm to ask whether it has any material it can send you, such as marketing literature or press releases. Its website should also carry plenty of fuel for thought.

During the interview itself, you want to show that you are a good a fit for the company and that you can bring something to the role.  Whatever you do, don’t try and wing it – very few people are able to do this.

It’s also well worth sitting down with a friend or family member to talk through some of the questions you might be asked. Don’t see this as a rehearsal or opportunity to learn answers to questions off by heart. Instead, it should provide you with an opportunity to think about how you can tailor your answers to show that you are right for the role and that you want it.

In terms of the big day itself, make sure you get there early and have something to eat and drink beforehand. If you are a smoker, try to abstain until after the interview – it may put your prospective employer off if you reek of smoke.

Likewise, keep perfume or aftershave and expressive jewellery to a minimum. Instead, try to dress as if you already work there. In most cases a suit is best, but if you feel the company in question has more of a ‘dress-down’ policy, then bear this in mind when picking your outfit.

During the interview make eye contact as much as possible (without staring) and take your time - there is no need to rush out answers. Ask for a glass of water when you arrive, as this can provide a useful diversion if you need to think about the answer to a question.

As in most social situations, being polite and genuine should pay off. Remember to send an email to the person who interviewed you after the event; politely thank them for their time and reiterate your interest in the job. Keep it short though.

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