Fears that anti-age discrimination laws to be introduced in the UK next year will spell the end of graduate training schemes and the annual milk round are probably wide of the mark. But it is clear that how employers recruit and train graduates will have to change significantly.
A recent study by law firm DLA, the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) and graduate careers specialist Graduate Prospects said concerns that the laws would mean the end of graduate schemes as a fair and legitimate recruitment method had been "overstated".
But the laws, which come into effect on 1 October next year, will mean that schemes that stay limited to "first jobbers" straight from university will leave employers wide open to discrimination claims.
Worryingly, the research polled employers and found more than half did not believe their current graduate recruitment processes were "age neutral", although 52 per cent also thought age was a weak predictor of future performance.
More than seven out of 10 admitted to using images of young people in such advertising and more than three-quarters of recruits recruited by AGR members are under 25, it found.
For employers with big graduate recruitment and training programmes, the new age regulations are therefore a very real issue – but should not be cause for breaking out in a cold sweat, stresses Julie Ingham, marketing and communications manager at Graduate Prospects.
"It is going to be a fundamental change. The problem is that, unlike sex discrimination, it is not an easy one to distinguish and there are so many cultural stereotypes about it," she says.
"But we are also starting to make graduate recruiters aware that they do not need to panic," she adds.
Just this week, the Association of Technology Staffing Companies warned that employers in IT and other sectors that tended to target young employees in recruitment campaigns would have to tread carefully under the new laws.
Other "youthful" industries such as advertising and the media also face having to re-assess how they attract, develop and retain graduates and other workers.
Perhaps the biggest change is that organisations will have to ensure that graduate training programmes are open to people of all ages not just very recent graduate leavers, says Ingham.
Employers will also need to be sure they are being marketed to all age groups and that there is no stipulation on university leaving dates.
"They need to have plenty of opportunities for people who are non-traditional applicants to apply. Their schemes have to be open to older people," Ingham stresses.
The big practical problem at the moment is the sheer lack of detail about what is going to happen come 1 October, says Carl Gilleard, AGR chief executive.
The government's consultation document on the laws appears to suggest graduate training schemes will be able to continue, but no one is absolutely sure, he says.
"We do not believe graduate training schemes will be made illegal by the act. And when marketing such schemes there is an inference that as long as do not exclude applications you will be OK," he explains. "But this is a crucial point and we need to be much clearer."
Employers need a lot of answers right now, because work experience and internship recruitment programmes for next summer and 2007 are already being planned, he adds.
"It would be a tragedy if employers ran for cover and we saw a reduction in the number of graduate schemes. What we need in this country is more not fewer," he argues.
What we are likely to see come next October is much the same as we see with any new law, suggests Graduate Prospects' Ingham: a large section of responsible (and normally larger) employers who will already have taken action and be ready, another group scrambling to get there and a final bunch who not have taken any steps yet.
"They will be unlikely to change until someone takes them to court. But hopefully by that time there will be enough different models in place so that it will not be too difficult for them," she says.
Yet the laws may also bring a surprising benefit to employers. The number of older, mature students going to university increased by a fifth between 1999 and 2003 and is one of the fastest growing sections of the university population.
By making graduate training schemes, and graduate recruitment in general, more open and accessible, businesses may well find they end up bringing a wider range of talented, older people into their organisation, which, with an ageing working population, is probably be no bad thing.
Organisations could then evolve their graduate training and development programmes into an extra arm of their existing diversity programmes, suggests Ingham.
"There will be a small number of employers who inevitably will be at the vanguard of this and they will suddenly become very attractive to new graduates," she advises.