But as employers find better-targeted ways of finding new blood, the days of mass hirings straight from University may be numbered. Is student recruitment turning sour? asks Stephen Cook
Deep in its enclave of Astroturf and brutalist architecture, Loughborough University is holding a spring careers fair: 48 stands offering everything from a traineeship with Asda ('Part of the Wal-Mart family') to a life in the army ('Advance and be recognised') or the technology outfit Quinetic ('The future has our name on it - will it have yours?'). The students - flares, spiky hair, the occasional sports jacket - drift around, pausing to ask questions, take an information pack or pick up a freebie. There are toffees at the Intel stand, mini hard hats at Balfour Beatty, condoms from Camp Counsellors USA. 'That's a bit of a first,' says Jenny Wenham of the University Careers Service. 'I'm not sure whether to see it as responsible or irresponsible.'
The looming transition to the rat race is neatly touched on by the Intel stand, which pictures a laughing young woman with the words: 'Did I really wear those clothes and have a haircut like that?' Alfred MacAlpine is definitely the turkey of today's show, with its display of aerial photos of exciting airport runways and thrilling Essex bypasses.
On the face of it, then, everybody seems happy and the university 'milk round' is going quite nicely. The twice-yearly survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) has predicted an 8% rise in graduate vacancies this year, and a 2.5% increase in starting salaries to a median of pounds 20,000.
Loughborough students more used to living on pounds 6,000 a year give little gasps when they hear the figures: pound signs spring into their eyes.
Take a closer look, though, and the picture is more cloudy. The predicted rise in recruitment comes off a relatively low base and is concentrated in certain sectors - telecoms, IT, consulting and banking. And there are signs that employers who were predicting an increase in hirings at the turn of the year could back off when push comes to shove. The reasons are not hard to find - the shadow of events in the Gulf, the fall in company profits, the unpredictable stock market, and the persistently gloomy economic forecasts. Many companies learnt in earlier recessions that turning off your supply of new graduates when times are hard is likely to store up problems when the upswing eventually comes. But never underestimate the siren voice of short-termism.
Even the salary figures require caveats. It perhaps won't affect a science-orientated university such as Loughborough very much, but Professor Ian Walker of Warwick University has recently analysed the official Labour Force Survey figures from 1993 to 2001 and concluded that people with an arts degree earn between 2% and 10% less than those who leave school at 18. Degrees in law, medicine, maths and engineering, on the other hand, can bring you 25% more.
Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR, says graduate recruitment has been a volatile affair since 2000, when firms toured the university milk round making offers but subsequently revised their plans. The most dramatic example came in 2001, when 400 graduates hired by the consulting firm Accenture were put on half pay and told to go away and do something else until the firm had room for them.
The same trend was apparent last year, when the AGR survey of more than 200 companies suggested there was going to be a cutback in graduate recruitment of about 4%. In the event, says Gilleard, it was more like 15% - a statistic that put this year's expected figures in a different light.
'There's a sense in which this year's projected rise is just capturing back some of the losses that ocurred in the previous year,' he says. 'Also, the rise is predicted to be quite big in some sectors and some regions, but in others there's a fall - there's a drop as big as 43% in media companies.
There are winners and losers - some sectors going strong, some flat, others cutting back.
'Our data is very up to date, but it wouldn't surprise me if firms are already changing their targets as that volatility shows its influence. It's very difficult to read the market at the moment, which I think is a feature that isn't going to change. But I'm a little concerned by what I've been hearing in recent weeks that some companies are shutting down too far.
'What's behind it is the general lack of business confidence. Boards of directors are being forced to take immediate measures and look for short-term solutions, one of which is not to recruit. That can look like a course of action which causes least damage, but there is a potential longer-term damage, because the graduates they recruit now are going to make the difference to their bottom line several years on from here.'
BT was hiring as many as 600 graduates a year until a couple of years ago, and the figure has now fallen back to 400, who will be taken on at salaries between pounds 19,000 and pounds 22,000. But Dave Wilson, manager of employment policy, is determined not to let the recruitment numbers fall much further.
While most of a company's costs are managed according to the current phase of the economic cycle, his view is that the cost of searching for and hiring talented graduates should be to some extent isolated from immediate financial concerns and managed in advance of the economic cycle. 'A few years ago there were some companies that cut their graduate recruitment and found they went to the wall when the upturn eventually began to happen,' he says. 'So there's a wide understanding these days that at times when the going gets tough, the thing not to stop is your graduate recruitment programme, because that's where you search for the talent that will get you out of the downturn.
'Things haven't been very good in telecoms recently, but there's more than a little evidence that organisations don't stop investing in telecoms for ever. Companies are going to need to be up with the market. There are things you can do on an intranet, for example, which are quite amazing compared to a couple of years ago - I would say that, though, because I'm from BT.'
The US computer giant Intel, which makes most of the world's computer chips and employs about 1,000 people in its joint European HQ in Swindon, is also thinking about graduate recruitment with its eyes on a distant horizon rather than a foreground dominated by economic downturn and the jitters of war and terrorism.
'The key message is that even when times are hard, you need to retain your recruitment programme,' says Rod Ireland, human resources manager in the UK. 'Today's graduates will be the stars in two, three or four years' time, and if you don't keep the programme going, then you'll find that you'll turn the tap on again when things look brighter, and not much water will come out.'
Like many large and forward-thinking companies, Intel takes trouble to set up and maintain contacts with schools and universities, so students perceive at an early stage how the company works and the kind of people it's looking for. Some colleges have agreed to tailor their computer science courses to make it easier for students to work for Intel after they graduate.
All that Ireland will say about the number of graduates being recruited this year is that it will be in 'double digits'. That means something between 10 and 99, which suggests there's some truth in Gilleard's point that recruitment plans tend nowadays to be volatile and kept under continuous review. Similarly, Accenture also avoids being specific, saying only that it will take 'more than last year', when it took 300.
'We have maintained the position that the market is going to pick up,' says Ireland. 'Logic says companies' existing equipment isn't going to be able to support new applications such as upgrades from Microsoft and an increase in the use of graphics and other chip-hungry applications.
They've deferred replacement to control costs, but sooner or later they're going to have to refresh their computer suites. But we're not exactly sure when.
'In this context, forward planning is important, and graduate recruitment is a major part of a pipeline that goes right back into secondary education. You start the relationship early, develop together, filter on the way. We're recruiting now the people who'll be making our success in three or four years' time. That's where the geniuses come from.'
This emphasis on early contact between student and recruiter appears to be the new face of graduate recruitment. Sponsorship of students and sandwich courses are established practices, but many firms also emphasise that students who come for work placements in the vacations will be in the best position to apply for permanent jobs. Jenny Wenham of the Loughborough careers service says e-mails are sent to second-year students to remind them to think about placements and come to the fairs. A few students don't really turn their minds to work applications until they've graduated, she says, but many start considering their options ever earlier: 'Even the first year is not too early to look.'
So the modern world of work, where you have to tread lightly and move fast as the ground shifts beneath you, seems to be encroaching still further on student life. What price that semi-mythical golden interlude of three or four years where you think freely and keep the outside world at arm's length? The life of the ivory tower can still be an option, but the risk is that you'll miss out on the best jobs with the most dynamic firms.
THE APPLICANT - KEITH MORRELL, final-year computing and management student
'I suppose I'd call myself ambitious - if I enjoy a job and get good feedback I'm prepared to work very hard on my career. I've put in five or six job applications already, one of them to Accenture. I knew about them from reading the papers, especially when they split from Arthur Andersen and did that huge rebranding.
I also went to a presentation they did here a couple of weeks ago, given by someone who'd been in the company about 12 years and someone who graduated last year. I'm interested in project management, designing the whole thing and seeing it through to completion. I've already got a lot of information from the presentation and the web site, but I came to the stand because I wanted to find out a bit more about the IT aspect. They were good, very knowledgeable and friendly. It would probably suit me better in general management rather than computing and technology. Apparently, they spend about 10% of their revenue on training, which sounds good to me. I've also been looking at Asda, which seems interesting - there's something like 2,500 applicants for 50 places. Because I changed courses at Loughborough I had a year out and went to the US to work in Camp America and travel.
That broadened my mind a lot and filled me with confidence. But in five or six years' time I might want to go travelling again, this time in South America.'
THE BROWSER - TALIA LA ROSA, first-year computing and management student
'I went to school at Tooting in south London and was originally planning to study law and be a barrister. But computing and management is a really good degree - my tutor says it gets you into better-paid jobs than a straight computer science degree does. You saw me getting all excited when I was talking to Accenture ... well, that's because it really would be my dream to work for a firm like that. I want to be an IT consultant specifically, doing projects to help people organise their technology more efficiently.
At the moment, I'm looking to get a placement in a firm for my third year, so I'm thinking about who to apply to - you need to start looking in your first year. I got to know about Accenture from a magazine called the Good Guide to Jobs, and they were there along with PA Consulting. I'm impressed by the whole fair, and the guy on the Accenture stand was very helpful and answered all my questions and gave me a pack of information. Also I couldn't believe how much they pay - pounds 28,500 starting salary plus a pounds 10,000 golden hello. I thought most graduates started at about pounds 20,000, so what they're offering is incredible - very impressive. I'm quite interested in having a look at Intel as well. A good career is very important to me - I don't want to get stuck in a dead-end job. But being a girl, it's not going to be the only thing. I'd like to get married and have a family and keep things in balance.'
THE RECRUITER - VICTORIA FLACK of Accenture
'The fair's very busy, quite a lot of interest, with a good mix. Higher percentage of men, ethnic mix very good, most females interested in finance or international rather than technical, which always seems to be about 70:30 men. Lots of questions are about a typical working day or the hours, but it's difficult to say because it varies so much from one project to another. I've had a quick look around and there's the finance arm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Intel for the tecchies, AEA for engineering. McCann foods seems quite popular. Some of the people who've stopped have already applied to us and got interviews. The key things will be whether they really know and understand what we do, really have an interest in IT, and can give an example of how they're taken a risk or used initiative. Independence, initiative and flexibility are what we're looking for - and people who've done their research. We estimate the people who've stopped by the number of brochures we've given out. Someone came up and said, you're Arthur Andersen, aren't you? And I just smiled and said: Nope.'
< learning="" curve:="" which="" degrees="" have="" the="" best="" payoff?="" degree="" subject="" effect="" on="" earnings="" law="" +26.4%="" health="" +25.3%="" maths="" +24.4%="" economics="" +23.7%="" engineering="" +16.1%="" nursing="" +13.9%="" languages="" +12.1%="" sciences="" +9%="" education="" +1.3%="" arts="" -5.6%="" percentage="" more="" or="" less="" that="" a="" graduate="" can="" expect="" to="" earn="" compared="" to="" someone="" with="" two="" or="" more="" a-levels="" only.="" mean="" values="" for="" both="" sexes.="" source:="" labour="" market="" trends="" vol="" 111.="" education="" earnings="" and="" productivity,="" professor="" ian="" walker.="">