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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Hand-written CVs on luminous paper
By Anna Bailey

Unemployment may be at record lows, but getting onto the first rung of the career ladder is tougher than ever before according to the UK's leading recruitment experts.

Handwriting
Handwriting: How not to get a job?
With thousands of graduates and school leavers about to enter the job market, it takes more than qualifications to launch the career they have always dreamed off.

"Focus, determination and strategic planning are vital to keep one step ahead of the pack," says Jas Lally, personal careers advisor at the University of East London (UEL).

"The key is to pinpoint exactly which companies you'd like to work for and sell them your achievements."

It may sound a rather targeted approach, but the world of recruitment is fast becoming a more competitive battlefield. It now takes on average two to three months to secure a job and even longer in well sought after areas such as IT and finance.

"Due to financial cutbacks employers are becoming much more selective about the type of candidates they recruit," says Emma Barnes, from recruitment agency Manpower. "They simply can't afford to take risks even if they've got a hunch you'd be an asset."

Determined

The news will no doubt dampen the spirits of new job seekers coming on to the market.

Of course it's good to have high expectations, but graduates need to break them down into achievable goals
Jas Lally
But for 24-year-old marketing and business graduate, Simone Forde, it only makes her more determined. Her dream job is to work for a major department store like Harrods or for the fashion label Gucci.

"I've worked hard for my degree, so I naturally now want to work for a renowned company. I could start at the bottom and work my way up, but I'd prefer to go in at a higher level."

Yet attitudes like this could be setting graduates up for a fall before they have started.

Aim too high

A survey from the Higher Education Statistics Agency has found that a third of last year's graduates are not in full time work because they often aim too high - for jobs that are too senior.

"Of course it's good to have high expectations, but, yes, graduates do need to break them down into achievable goals", says Jas Lally.

Simone and Kyle
The new job seekers: Simone and Kyle, looking for work
One of the best ways of doing this is through work experience, according to Aretha Rutherford, life coach and project manager for the BBC-backed Goals Project.

From office administration to landscape gardening, 'hands on' experience can make all the difference in developing skills and making contacts.

But, she says, it needs to be drilled into young people much earlier on.

"You know I've seen it all: candidates turning up late for interviews, looking like they've just woken up from bed with messed up hair and un-ironed clothes. It's really horrendous what goes on out there. Simply because people don't know what it's like to present themselves in a professional environment and are far too complacent."

Aqasa Nu from the youth advisory service Connexions in south London has also had his fair share of horror stories.

"There's no excuse for having a bad CV, but I still get people coming in with hand written, five page life stories complete with spelling mistakes and on luminous green paper."

Lack of experience

With costly behaviour like this, it's perhaps no wonder that 90% of CVs go straight into employers' bins. But more worrying is the amount of young people now turning to illegal jobs to make money.

Take 16-year-old Kyle from east London. He has just completed a City and Guilds in motorcycle maintenance but due to lack of experience has found it difficult to find a full time position. Disillusioned, he recently started selling tea towels door-to-door.

Woman ironing
Ironing not a bad start before an interview
"It's called 'on the knock'. All my friends are doing it and on a good week I can make anything up to 250."

Kyle thought he would only do the job for a couple of weeks but a month later he shows no signs of quitting.

"I'll only get a new job now if it pays as good as this one."

Yet help is at hand to help break the cycle.

Connexions is offering one to one career advice for 13 to 19 year olds across the country and university career offices like New Dimensions at UEL are forging relationships with some of the UK's top employers.

Even if you are rejected for a job, Jas Lally says you can always turn a negative into a positive.

"You've got to learn to use rejection to your advantage. So pick up the phone and ask an employer why you didn't get the job and then use that information wisely. You never know; it could be an ace in your back pocket. "

A guide to getting your first job is featured in First Job, a documentary on BBC1Xtra at 1730 GMT on Wednesday, also available via the BBC Radio Player (see internet links).




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