Graduate jobs market: what you need to know

Lucy Mair looks beyond the figures and finds out what the current state of the jobs market means for you

It'll come as no surprise that many graduates are having a tough time finding jobs: the headlines are full of depressing statistics about the rising number of applicants for the falling number of positions. Chances are you've got friends who are still interning after finishing university, and you may have already faced tough competition and received some rejection letters yourself.

This January, High Fliers Research revealed that there were slightly fewer entry-level positions at the UK's top 100 graduate employers in 2012 than in 2011. Not only that, the number of vacancies for university leavers is still 11 per cent lower than it was before the recession hit in 2008. But it's not all doom and gloom. The same employers expect to increase the number of graduates they take on in 2013 by 2.7 per cent.

The number of graduate-level jobs available isn't going to change your career aspirations or which positions you apply for. But understanding the jobs market, where competition is greatest and what employers are looking for, could help you get ahead in the race for employment.

Who's hiring?

The biggest growth in vacancies this year is expected to be seen in the public sector and retail, as well as at engineering and industrial companies and IT and telecommunications firms. Meanwhile, in 2012, the biggest cuts in graduate positions were in the professional services and investment banking industries - two of the areas most popular with high-achieving graduates.

According to High Fliers Research, professional services firms downgraded their recruitment numbers three times during 2012, cutting nearly 800 trainee positions compared with their original targets. Meanwhile City investment banks hired 900 fewer graduates than had been expected at the beginning of last year.

The cuts in graduate vacancies are down to the persistence of challenging economic conditions in the UK and the downsizing of some firms in the financial sector. But don't let the statistics fool you. Even though professional services firms reduced their intake of graduates last year, they're still some of the biggest graduate employers, with Deloitte and PwC each planning to take on 1,200 university leavers in 2013.

Getting experience

Whichever industry you want to work in, the best way to put yourself in the running for your dream job is to gain work experience with an employer before you graduate. According to the research, three-quarters of the graduate vacancies advertised by City investment banks will be filled by graduates who've already completed internships at the same bank. In addition, half of the training contracts offered by leading law firms will be awarded to students who've done vacation schemes, and PwC has announced that 25 per cent of this year's vacancies have already been filled by former interns.

The message from recruiters is clear: work experience is a must if you want to join one of the UK's top companies. "Carrying out work experience demonstrates passion and interest, looks very good on CVs and is a good development tool," explains Deloitte's head of graduate recruitment Rob Fryer.

The good news is that employers are offering a record number of paid work experience places for students and recent graduates. But competition for the formal internship and vacation schemes is extremely tough, so you may still have to resort to doing other work placements in order to show recruiters you have the workplace experience they want.

Although a proportion of graduate vacancies will go to those students who have done internships, consulting firms and accounting and professional services organisations have some of the lowest ratios of work placements to graduate jobs. So you shouldn't feel discouraged from applying for a graduate position if you were unsuccessful in getting a summer internship at a top City firm.

But if you're applying for graduate roles without any relevant work experience on your CV, your chances of securing some of the most coveted City roles will be slim. Head of People at PwC Gaenor Bagley says: "While there's some concern voiced that employers increasing intern recruitment can reduce the opportunities for those graduates already looking for jobs, in truth, we believe students need to get into the workplace as soon as possible if they are to really understand what they can offer an employer and fine tune their skills."

Standing out

Having work experience is now just as important as meeting the academic benchmark by getting a 2.1 or a first-class in your academic studies, so what else can you do to set yourself apart from others applying for the same role?

"Networking is key," says Rob. "Candidates should use the events held by graduate recruiters to meet employees and build up a clear understanding of the company's culture. It's a very powerful statement to be able to say on a cover letter or application form that you met someone at an event - it demonstrates your interest and commitment."

Demonstrating that you have a well-rounded character is also important. Simmons & Simmons graduate recruitment assistant Samantha Drysdale says: "During the application process, be sure to show the firm who you are by giving examples of any extracurricular activities, charity and social work, positions of responsibility, travel etcetera. We want to see that you'll be good at the job not only in an academic sense, but that you have the breadth of skills needed be an astute commercial lawyer."

Finally, it's important to begin applying for opportunities as early as possible, convey your enthusiasm for the role, and make sure your CV, cover letters and interview techniques are up to scratch.