Richard Garner | Wednesday 16 January 2013
"Well done, Carruthers. First at Oxford, eh? Just the ticket! When can you start?" This pastiche of recruitment practices in the 1950s and 1960s is only partly apocryphal. (There weren't too many people called Carruthers even then in the higher echelons of the civil service.) It would be totally out-of-date if applied to the recruitment of university graduates in the 21st century.
For a start, it would not be so rare for a candidate presenting themselves for an interview to have a first – even from Oxford. The number of students gaining first-class honours soared by 16 per cent last year – the biggest increase on record. It means more than a sixth of students now graduate with the top grade – and that is triple the number that did so in the 1990s.
As a result, employers are looking for a range of different skills in a ddition to the qualification presented by the student when it comes to filling vacancies. Therefore, if you as a student have failed to take part in any form of work experience while at university your employment prospects will probably be stymied, More than a third of this year's entry-level positions will be filled by graduates who have already worked for their organisations.
Over the past couple of years, employers have constantly harped on about the lack of employability skills among potential recruits: how they lack the ability to take part in team work, that their communication skills are not great – these are the sorts of things that can be absent from the school curriculum if teachers decide to just focus on exam league tables.
"Beginning to hunt for jobs can be daunting for young people," says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters – which will be publishing its own evaluation of the graduate recruitment market next week.
"Many may be uncertain about what their ideal job looks like and unaware of the possibilities open to them whilst others will have a more specific idea but be concerned about how competitive their field is. However, those who use their time wisely will have ample opportunities to think through their goals and build up an impressive portfolio of relevant experience. Students develop their employability skills all the time while taking part in extra-curricular activities – they just need to present these skills in a clear and meaningful way on their CVs and at interview.
"Work experience is an excellent way to prepare for job-hunting. Taking on a casual job during university holiday or volunteering for charity during a gap year helps to demonstrate drive and awareness of working environments. The more experience students gain, the better placed they will be to make decisions about which roles are likely to suit them."
Of course, it is not only the job interview that will be competitive for today's students – securing a place at your chosen university can be hard, too. In order to get into Britain's most selective universities, it may not be enough to be just the holder of three grade As at A-level. Oxford and Cambridge between them turn away up to 10,000 candidates a year with top-grade qualifications.
Similar rules apply, then – although one favoured tip is to opt to take the extended essay qualification at A-level and excel in it.
It would be good, many employers feel, if it were to form part of the English Baccalaureate Education Secretary Michael Gove is seeking to introduce to replace GCSEs.