There hasn't been much good news for university-leavers over the past four years, but it looks like things might be about to change. A survey released last week found that nine in 10 graduates of the class of 2008-09 have found work, despite graduating at the onset of the economic crisis. And, this summer, a survey of the 100 largest graduate employers also suggested that recruitment is on the mend. The number of vacancies being advertised is up 4.6% according to the survey, which – although below pre-recession levels – is the highest rate seen since 2008.
"It's definitely a tough market out there," says Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. "But employers are still investing in graduate talent. While there's no actual growth in those figures, at least we're getting back on to an even keel."
Which sectors are hiring?
Recruitment levels vary from one sector to the next, says Isherwood. "The public sector, engineering, retail and consulting are advertising more vacancies. The IT and telecoms sector has also increased recruitment year on year. The banks, on the other hand, still aren't hiring as many people as before the recession. Law recruitment is also pretty flat."
Statistics released by the Higher Education Statistics Authority (Hesa) show that, of the graduates leaving full-time degree courses in 2008-09, 18.8% found work in the health and social work sector, while 14.1% are now in the professional, scientific and technical industry (which includes anything from bookkeeping, to architectural services or legal advice). The biggest source of employment for graduates was the education sector – where more than a quarter (25.5%) now work.
Teach First, but what later?
This influx of graduates into schools is partly down to Teach First, a non-profit organisation which fast-tracks students from top universities into teaching careers in state schools. It was the largest recruiter of graduates in 2013, when it hired 1,260 university-leavers.
James Darley, director of graduate recruitment at Teach First, says young people are attracted to the scheme because it's an opportunity to help society. The programme's popularity also indicates that today's graduates don't start out looking for "a job for life".
"The hot terminology at the moment is 'portfolio careers'. Many in the field feel that young people will have seven different careers in their lifetime rather than just one or two, as their parents did."
Not everyone decides to stay in teaching after they've completed the programme.
"We've been going since 2003 and since then, around 54% of those who could have left after completing the two years, have chosen to stay in the classroom."
Does your degree subject matter?
Gareth Lee, a politics and international relations graduate, is one of the many young people enrolled on the Teach First programme. He says he doesn't see himself as a lifelong teacher. "I am planning to stay for the next few years, at the least. But I'd love to work in international relations or politics at some point in my life. It's quite a difficult field to get into. There isn't really a logical route to follow.
"When I was studying my master's I started to think: what can I do that will challenge me and be fulfilling, where I have some commitment and responsibility?
"Right now I'm teaching maths. It wasn't my degree subject, but I studied it at A-level."
Most graduates do end up working in a field that's related to their degree – 61.6% of 2008-09 graduates said their degree subject was a formal requirement or 'very important'' in helping them get their current job.
But often, employers are less bothered by applicants' degree field, and more concerned that applicants have "the right thinking skills and creative skills – and that they can apply themselves to the job at hand," says Isherwood.
"Obviously in the engineering sector, employers will only be fishing in the engineering pool, but if you're looking at jobs in management or retail, recruiters want broader skills."
Creative degrees: an artful choice?
Emma Hunt, deputy vice-chancellor of Arts University Bournemouth, says her students have brought their creative skills to sectors as diverse as entertainment and engineering.
"There are huge opportunities within the design industries and so on, but many graduates also apply their skills to industries like engineering or healthcare – there are hundreds of examples where design has made product a bit more user-friendly or effective."
The image of the artist starving in their garret for the sake of their art is an outdated one, she adds. "The employment opportunities are greater than ever before. The type of jobs you might have done in the past – such as artist or designer, which are quite easy to define – have changed in a new era of web designers, animators and so on. Creative graduates are no longer tied to just one segment of the employment landscape."
How much are graduates paid?
Graduates from creative art and design courses tend to be among the worst paid. Along with mass communications and documentation graduates, and those who studied agriculture and related subjects at university, fewer than 50% were earning more than £21,000 three years after graduating in 2009. For that year group, £20,000 was the average starting salary for graduates. This rose to £23,500 three years later.
The amount you earn depends on the subject you studied and/or the industry where you find work. Those studying medicine and dentistry have the highest earnings – £30,000 six months after graduation, rising to £40,000 after three years.
Starting salaries at the UK's largest graduate employers are slightly higher than elsewhere in the job market, at an average of £29,000. The most generous salaries are offered by investment banks (average of £45,000), law firms (£38,000) and oil and energy companies (£32,500). Compared with other large recruiters, public sector employers (median of £22,200) have the lowest graduate pay rates for 2013.
On average, female graduates earn less than their male counterparts, according to Hesa. Its figures show that while 63.3% of female graduates from full-time undergraduate degrees earn over £21,000 three years after leaving university, this compares with 68.7% of men.
How important is your degree grade?
There is no breakdown available to show how degree classification impacts on a graduate's salary. However, lower degree grades do correlate with higher unemployment rates. While 1.7% of those who graduated in 2008 with a first class are unemployed, the same figure stands at 7.7% for those who got a third.
"An employer, who wants to recruit people with a high level of intellect, may have received 20,000 applications. You'll find that they look not only at degree classifications but also at Ucas points," says Isherwood.
"Most employers expect a minimum of a 2.1 degree," adds Antonia Clark, a careers consultant at City University London. "But they're also looking for applicants with self-confidence and self-awareness. They want graduates with good communication skills, numeracy and commercial awareness. It's not just about grades, but also about how you come across at interview."
Graduates without work experience stand little chance of securing a job this year despite a rise in vacancies, research suggests.
More than one-third of the graduate vacancies available are expected to be taken by people who have already worked for a firm while they were studying, a report by High Fliers Research has found.
The research, which looked at the 2012 graduate job market, found that the employers expected to hire 6.4% more university leavers this summer than they did last year.
Nearly half of the firms questioned said they expected to recruit more graduates this summer, with a further quarter aiming to take on the same number as in 2011.
But a total of 36% of vacancies on offer are likely to be filled by applicants who worked for the company concerned while they were at university. That means many of those without work experience are likely to be left out in the cold, the report says.
More than half of recruiters say graduates who have no previous work experience are unlikely to make it through their selection process and have little or no chance of securing a job offer for their graduate programme. Despite the increase in job openings, competition is still likely to be tough this year.
The report – based on a survey of leading graduate employers – found that, on average, companies have received 19% more applications during the early part of this year's recruitment season than last year.
Those leaving university this summer are competing with previous graduates – one-third of applications this year have been from people who finished their degree in 2011 or earlier, the report concludes.
It also warns that, although there is an increase in graduate vacancies, job openings at leading firms remain below pre-recession levels, with recruitment this year 6% below that recorded in 2007.
At the same time, an extra 50,000 new graduates will leave university this summer compared with five years ago.
Martin Birchall, the managing director of High Fliers Research, said the rise in graduate vacancies was welcome news.
However, he added: "Today's report includes the stark warning to the class of 2012 that, in a highly competitive graduate job market, new graduates who have 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."