Fewer jobs are available to graduates, but there are still plenty of opportunities for those with talent, determination and the knowledge of how to stand out from the crowd.
Gloomy headlines about high graduate unemployment and looming job cuts have made for grim reading in recent months. Landing a dream role in the fashion industry has never been easy, but the recession has made life tougher for those starting out in their careers.
The facts - at first - don’t offer much encouragement. More than 21,000 students who graduated in 2009 were still out of work six months later, according to the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU). This is the highest level of graduate unemployment in 17 years.
Meanwhile, the backlog of unemployed graduates continues to grow. The class of 2010 had to compete with graduates from the previous year still out of work, fuelling a record average of 70 applicants for every job.
But Fiona Abrahams, managing director of recruitment consultancy Fashion Therapy International, says demand for smart, confident graduates is actually on the rise.
“Much of the doom and gloom has been exaggerated by the press. Retail has recovered as far as the recession is concerned. Businesses are just getting on with picking up the pieces,” she says.
Despite competition for jobs reaching record levels, there are plenty of opportunities for bright, determined individuals, especially in the fashion retail sector. According to HECSU, more than 5,000 of those who graduated in 2009 managed to find work in the fashion, textile or retail industries, either in retail or wholesale.
Knowledge is power
Doing your homework is vital. Many graduates will fail to get an interview because it is clear from their application they have not researched the role, the company and its competitors.
Lee Evans, group recruitment manager at fast-fashion chain New Look, says a lack of understanding about the job is the most common mistake he comes across.
“I get so many people coming in saying they want to be in ‘buying and merchandising’ and I say, so which is it? The two roles could not be more different. One is all about numbers, the other is very creative,” says Evans.
Sarah Barfield, senior resourcing officer at Arcadia, even suggests phoning the company and asking to speak to the HR team about the role. She adds: “I would happily spend 10 minutes explaining exactly what the job entails.”
She also advises going online, where bloggers give feedback about job interviews and how companies operate.
A pet hate among recruiters is candidates adopting a scattergun approach and applying to hundreds of different jobs. Barfield says there is nothing more irritating than phoning a candidate about their application and being asked what role she is calling about.
Katy Miskell, graduate consultant at recruitment consultancy Success Appointments, agrees. She says candidates are often too vague about what they want to do. She adds: “While it is good to be flexible, retailers want to see someone who is focused.”
It is therefore crucial to think about the different roles in the fashion industry. Buyers are typically creative, but they also have to have a strong commercial awareness. A retail degree is helpful, but not essential.
Within brands, the buying role is different. Often referred to as product developers, their main responsibility is to understand what the retailers want. These people need to be good at networking and building relationships.
Merchandisers are more analytical. They oversee stock allocation and monitor sales. A numerical degree would be relevant. While merchandising is slightly less competitive, Miskell warns against seeing this as a ‘second best’ career after buying. She adds: “A retailer will spot a mile off the people who failed to get a buying job and have plumped for merchandising as second choice.”
Broaden your horizons
There is more to fashion than buying and merchandising, says Barfield. Candidates should consider roles such as finance or IT, which can be just as interesting.
Arcadia hired 300 graduates last year across its chains, which include Topshop, Topman and Dorothy Perkins. The bulk joined its buying, merchandising or distribution schemes, but many were also hired on its finance and HR programmes. Barfield adds: “We get so many graduates who have got a good business or economics degree but who don’t want to work in a bank. Working in finance at Arcadia is far from boring.”
Its accountants and analysts help inform each brand’s strategy and direction. Other ad hoc graduate roles in other parts of the business, from logistics to PR, are also worth looking into.
A common faux pas is expecting to move on too quickly. It can take a couple of years to become a buyer’s assistant or merchandiser’s assistant and five or six to become a buyer or merchandiser. Entry-level roles in merchandising are often referred to as distributors or allocators, or merchandise administration assistants. They will be responsible for purchase orders, filing and chasing suppliers. In buying, junior employees are typically known as buyer’s administration assistants and their main responsibility is getting the right stock to the right stores.
Designs on a career
Designers are often dealt with differently as it is incredibly competitive. Abrahams says it is important to have relevant internships. She says: “You have to have a very strong commercial portfolio, beautifully presented.”
At New Look, for instance, designers will often spend 18 months doing an internship while studying for their fashion degree. When a vacancy pops up, these candidates are more likely to be considered than someone external.
Work experience is essential for anyone wanting to get into the fashion business. Alex Richardson, resourcing manager at luxury department store Harrods, says this is her number one tip, no matter what the job is.
“Anyone can just write out the job description and say they have those skills but that doesn’t mean anything to me. I want to see that you have done it already,” she says.
While she admits this can be difficult for people just starting out, she believes there are many ways you can prove
you are hungry for the job. Richardson adds: “You can get internships; you can go outside your working hours and shadow people. This is the only way you can really understand the role you are going for. You don’t just swan into a buyer’s job. You need to work for it.”
The final hurdle
Having got past the rigorous application process, excelling at the interview stage is the final hurdle. Abrahams says: “Don’t be nervous. I know it is easier said than done, but people who are timid are simply not going to get the jobs. You need to show passion and enthusiasm.”
Evans believes confidence can help, but it is not essential. He recently hired a graduate who was desperately shy but clearly passionate about the role and wanted the job. “She is now a brilliant stock allocator,” says Evans.
Just because times are tough does not mean there is not a job for you out there, somewhere. The trick is learning how to stand out from the crowd.
Average salaries across buying and merchandising
£16,000 to £19,000
After two years
After five years
After 10 years
*Source: Success Appointments