Independent Graduate: Recruiters Hunt out the Best Graduates ; Headhunting Firms Are Now Targeting Universities and Colleges as the Source of Candidates for Top Jobs

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Worried that you won't find a job? Concerned that you don't even know what job you want? Fear not. The word on the university street is that if you play your cards right, you might find yourself being picked out by graduate recruiters rather than vice versa.

The idea of headhunting graduates would, of course, have been inconceivable a few years ago. But those were the days when recruitment was still a simple affair revolving around the annual milk round of university visits and on-campus interviews. Today, it's a different story, claims the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD). Having been encouraged to go into higher education in their droves, people are now flooding the labour market from university. With around 200 universities and higher education institutions in the UK catering for more than 1.7 million students - almost double the number in higher education a decade ago - it would be difficult for even the largest of employers to send recruiters to more than a small proportion of campuses.

Far from easing the graduate recruiters' problems, then, the huge range of skills and attributes on offer is consequently making the right people even harder to find. "Companies began to find that they had to recruit earlier and earlier each year to cream off the best graduates," explains Shauna Horgan, vice-president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS).

Little wonder that they are being forced to develop new strategies. Indeed, graduate recruitment is a task that the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) review compares to "finding a needle in a haystack".

If the sheer numbers of graduates aren't enough to make employers' lives a nightmare, they have also had to cope with increasing numbers of top graduates not being able to decide upon a career. According to a new study by the Institute of Employment Relations at Warwick University, more than 33 per cent of graduates go straight into "McGrad" jobs where their degree skills are not used. The idea is that they sweep floors to pay off debts as well as to use the time to weigh up their options.

"Half the graduates who come to us haven't got a clue what they want to do," says Sophie Rowan of Career Psychology, a London-based firm providing graduates with vocational guidance, who believes this could be a reason for the increase in headhunting. After all, if high-calibre graduates don't know what direction to go in, the headhunter can attempt to make their minds up for them.

"I was not sure what I wanted to do," admits Adam Williams, who was approached by a headhunting organisation while an undergraduate at Durham University. "Having somebody come to you and say, `Have you considered this, because you seem to fit our profile?' helped me move to where I am now." In fact, three years on, Williams looks set for a career in management consultancy - an area he may not have entered otherwise.

The nature of the student population has also changed. In the early Eighties, when only the most academically able 12 per cent of 19- to 20-year-olds were in full-time education, employers had a clear idea of what they were getting when they offered a job to a final year student. The millennial graduate population, on the other hand, is a diverse bunch.

The IPD, for instance, points out that most entrants to first- degree courses are now women, and the proportion of mature students has grown to more than a quarter in some subjects, while ethnic- minority students are well represented on many courses. Non- traditional qualifications are also on the rise. More than a quarter of those studying business studies, education and maths now hold vocational qualifications rather than A-levels or Scottish highers. The "typical" graduate of the past (that is, 21 years old, white, male, with a good degree in a recognisable subject from a well- known university) accounts for only a minority - fewer than one in four - of those graduating. …