Finals first, jobs second

Nearly 60 per cent of this year's graduates had not applied for a job three months before finals, if the new High Fliers graduate survey is to be believed (page 8). Graduates are berated for not investing enough time in searching for a job. Meanwhile other surveys give a confusing picture.

Some say applications regularly exceed 100 for each job secured. The annual Association for Graduate Recruiters survey says that the number of unfilled vacancies rose last year because the quality of the applicants was not sufficiently high. The Industrial Relations Services survey has said the prospect of a buoyant labour market for new graduates is "looking more remote". The Incomes Data Services survey stressed "recovery", citing the experience of one company which estimated that recruitment demand was comparable to the boom years of the late 1980s.

In short, no one knows what is going on in the graduate employment market.

Take salaries. The AGR survey put the median starting salary at Pounds 13,500 last year while the CSU, an agency of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, found that nearly 70 per cent of graduate starting salaries fell below the loan repayment threshold of Pounds 13,980.

Take information about who earns most. PA Consulting puts IT and engineering top (young engineers are forgiven a hollow laugh). The IRS plumps for actuaries.

Available surveys while numerous are small and samples sometimes peculiar. The High Fliers survey is based on interviews with a quarter of the finalists at just 15 "leading" universities, only one (Aston) of which is in the top ten in the list of institutions with the most employable graduates in the league tables we publish today on pages i-iv. The AGR surveys 282 employer members, mainly big blue-chip companies, IRS surveys 163 members, IDS "over 100", PA Consulting surveys 68.

Yet they influence not only graduating students but also pre-university students whose course choices can depend on preceived job prospects and earning potential.

These surveys provide interesting titbits, like IDS's discovery that Mercury Communications uses a computer capable of searching 300,000 CVs every six seconds. More important, they can hint at significant trends like employers paying a premium of Pounds 400 to Pounds 500 for students with sandwich degrees. But they are not good enough. Only the Central Services Unit specialises in surveying small and medium-sized enterprises where many graduates will find their best opportunities. Such surveys are susceptible to distortion from employers' opinions and wishes.

The information returned by universities, which forms the basis for our league table gives food for thought, showing Luton, a university closely attuned to the labour market, in pole position. The Department of Employment sits on masses of data. The CSU invested heavily in the 1980s in Prospect, an employment guidance database intended to match capabilities to opportunities.

This country has done a great good thing in investing during recession in extra graduates. Now that we have economic growth, to everyone's surprise the economy is not overheating as predicted, perhaps because this time the people are available to ride the wave. To make the best use of this greater flow of graduates, and to avoid the heartbreaking waste represented by graduates' struggle to find work, action is urgently needed to bring together, with the help of modern technology, all the various sources of information - dry statistics and anecdotes provide graduates with an efficient service.

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