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Graduates face fierce competition for jobs

The pool of graduate jobs is shrinking, but opportunities still exist in the fashion industry for those students with strong portfolios, skills, experience and enthusiasm

Graduates are having a tough time in 2009, with retailers cutting their graduate intake numbers and slashing permanent jobs. But opportunities still exist for those wanting a career in the fashion industry – students just need to know where to look and strive hard to gain a work placement.

Last month, graduate recruitment specialist High Fliers Research said the UK’s leading graduate employers had reduced their recruitment targets for 2009 by 17%, which comes after a 6.7% fall in vacancies for graduates in 2008. It also found that students have been put off applying for jobs in retail due to the economic downturn.

High street chain Marks & Spencer says it hopes to match the 200 graduate and business placements it offered in 2008 this year, but adds that it is too early to tell if it will be able to achieve that target. A M&S spokeswoman said: “We are very committed to the graduate and business placement programmes. They are an important way for us to bring new talent into the business.”

A helping hand

Clare Tristram, employability manager at the London College of Fashion (LCF), admits the jobs market is tough for graduates but says the college has new initiatives to help students into employment. “We’re launching the LCF First Move programme this year for final-year students, which includes employability workshops and bringing industry representatives to the college to talk to students,” she says. So far, Arcadia Group has visited, while Tesco will take part later this year.

“There are still graduate job opportunities within the high street, but those opportunities have reduced this year, as have salaries, so we’re ensuring that we select the right students to match the job,” adds Tristram. “Our advice is to do at least one year’s industry placement, to network and take freelance opportunities.”

Vanessa Denza, founder of recruitment consultancy Denza International, agrees that it is vital for students to secure work experience, but stresses the importance of learning technical skills too. “Branching out into non-pure design courses is important – students need to be technically taught, they need to understand about fabrics,” she says. “For example, one company [I work with] was desperate for someone who could also do graphic design. A proper placement also gives students a better chance of getting a job.”

Work experience placements allow both students and businesses to see how well suited they are to each other before making any formal commitments. And work placements often lead to full-time jobs.

Leila Habibi, head of product development and design at Agent Provocateur, says four members of the lingerie brand’s staff worked placements or took other roles within the business before taking up their current positions. “My head of design did work experience with us and another member of the team started on the shop floor,” she says during a mentoring session organised by Agent Provocateur last month for the winners of the Graduate Fashion Week competition.

“The most important things for students or graduates to do is show a good attitude, have a great personality and passion for what they do,” Habibi tells the GFW winners, as she gives them a tour of Agent Provocateur’s head office in Clerkenwell, north London. The brand understands that, while it gives the graduates an insight into the fashion industry, in return it gets first dibs on new talent.

Fashion recruitment consultancy Smith & Pye also snaps up new talent by signing up the best graduates, even before they have done any work experience. “We see it as our business to put the best graduates on our books so we visit the best colleges, such as [London colleges] Central Saint Martins and Royal College of Arts, and Kingston College, and award the student with the best portfolio £1,000 each year,” says director Alice Smith.

Smith stresses that having a good portfolio is a graduate’s “passport” into full-time employment. “It’s getting tougher for graduates and employers are being very careful to appoint the right candidate, asking for up to four interviews and for specific projects from students,” she says. “All graduates should look at portfolios from the best, past students who have won awards. Graduates don’t really have [comprehensive] CVs, so a strong portfolio is their passport to getting a job.” 

Making the grade

  • 500 -Number of jobs, including graduate placements, created at George at Asda this year
  • 63% - Proportion of Retail Management graduates at the London College of Communication in 2007 who went into full-time work after six months
  • 21% - Proportion of womenswear fashion graduates at Central Saint Martins in 2007 who went into full-time work after six months

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