behind the headlines – graduate opportunities

Not for the first time, headlines about the prospects for graduates draw out of me a very heavy sigh. Such a big sigh, in fact, that in my germ-ridden state I ran out of breath and was left coughing and spluttering. I understand why journalists pick out the ‘bad news.’ Dramatic = interesting, after all, and their job is to keep their audience interested. On the other hand, surely there’s room for pointing out the positives, too. Couldn’t we just occasionally have a good news day?

I refer to the latest High Fliers survey. For the uninitiated, this is annual research that’s conducted very professionally and with high standards of validity and reliability. This work contributes to the famous “Times Top 100 Employers” publication, aka “The Big Red Book.” Career-minded students love it, because it’s a fancy hardback, looks very serious indeed in its striking black-and-red livery and, crucially, it’s free. 

Two elements bring together the data: both employers and students are surveyed.  The newly-published information relates to the employers’ perspective – and what a list! These organisations are mostly household names, mostly huge, mostly commercial. They are super-duper, cool and classy companies.  They are without a doubt the very employers that many students are interested in….and therein lies the problem.

While the firms involved are major employers, often recruiting a large number of graduates, and their plans do have an impact on the labour market, they are not the only piece of the puzzle that students have to work out. “The Top 100 Employers” is ultimately a popularity contest, decided on the basis of where students think the best opportunities lie. The book might as well be titled “The Most Competitive Companies To Get Into, Ever.”  The authors do provide a perfectly clear explanation of how the information is gathered and who’s included in the survey, should anyone care to read it, but do they?  Today, I suspect this is as far as most people will read:

“in a highly competitive graduate job market, new graduates who’ve not had any work experience at all during their time at university have little hope of landing a well-paid job with a leading employer, irrespective of the academic results they achieve or the university they’ve attended.”

It sounds depressing, but a moment’s thought provides a simple explanation.  We’re talking about THE most prestigious companies in the country!  They always have been and always will be the toughest to get into simply because ‘everyone’ wants to join them.  Of course they can be really picky about who they recruit – the world and his dog will apply, so if it was your company, wouldn’t you use any available means to identify the best?  And is it really any surprise that graduates with no experience at all aren’t being chased by headhunters for the leading multi-nationals? 

But there is good news. First, the reality is that however important these employers are, it’s entirely truthful to say that there are literally millions of other employers out there – 4.5 million according to BIS.  99.9%  of them are small and medium-sized enterprises.   Lots of them would love to have a graduate on board, but even if they’re desperate to attract new talent and really keen to receive more applications from committed grads, some brilliant opportunities go unnoticed because smaller companies lack the profile and the budget to catch your eye.

Second, if you’re among those with a genuine interest in the Top 100, don’t be put off by the competition.  One of the most important questions employers ask is “why do you want to work for us?”  When you get it right by stating a good reason, clearly and articulately, your application goes straight to the top of the pile.  Putting some time and effort into researching the company allows candidates to show an understanding of who the company is and what they do.  The best way to do this is to tell them why you’re interested and how you’ll contribute to their success.  Come up with something more sophisticated than “because you’re a big company” and you’re already half way there.


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