Set yourself apart from the competition

Mike Barnard examines the stats behind the graduate jobs market

Now that 2012 is in full swing, the job hunters among you may be keen to get to grips with what's happening in the graduate jobs market this year. As ever, the sooner you start career planning, the better. Research by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) suggests four out of five graduates are confident they have the skills employers are looking for. And they are right to believe so: graduates remain a valuable source of talent that is tapped every year by recruiters keen to get the best for their business. However, the same research also claims 84 per cent of respondents think it's more difficult than ever to find work.

The number of graduate jobs available in 2012 may not have reached the pre-2007 levels when the economy was still booming, but they are still out there. According to a study by High Fliers Research, there will be a 6.4 per cent increase in the number of graduates hired in 2012 compared to 2011 - the third successive year of rises. This increase is accompanied by the welcome news that some recruiters are planning to take on up to 1,200 graduates each in 2012. It's important to remember, though, that the number of university leavers competing for jobs is also on the up, with 50,000 more students set to graduate this year than five years ago.

How do you set yourself apart and make a recruiter's shortlist? The best way is to identify where your skills and ambitions lie and then seek out workplace experience, preferably with the employers you want to work for. High Fliers reports that there are more than 11,000 work experience places available with the top employers this academic year, and many are also providing internships and vacation schemes of three weeks or longer - perfect for the Easter holidays. You may have been told that these schemes are an opportunity to get your foot in the door; never has this been more accurate. More than a third of this year's entry-level positions are expected to be filled by graduates who have already worked for the hiring organisation, while half of the recruiters in the study warn that those with no previous work experience are likely to have a tough time finding employment.

To avoid being left out in the cold, shortlist the employers you want to work for and find out about the work experience opportunities available with them in the coming months. If employers are advertising internships or work experience placements, apply without delay to put yourself in the front-running for a job this summer. But don't get downhearted if you don't find what you're looking for. Work shadowing and more casual work experience placements are potential arrangements you could make to gain exposure in your preferred industry or role - speak to an employer's HR department to find out if they might be able to take you on.

Fortune favours the brave: don't be afraid to speak boldly about your ambitions and emphasise why you've chosen a particular company or role. If you're successful in gaining time in the workplace via an official or non-official route, it'll greatly enhance your prospects this summer and you may even leave the office on your last day with an offer already in the bag.