Unemployed graduates in Northern Ireland are set to receive a boost from a new initiative that will offer them a work placement alongside further study.
The Graduate Acceleration Programme (GAP), developed by Business in the Community in partnership with Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster, launches on Monday with the aim of helping graduates to get on to the career ladder in 2010.
GAP involves a work placement, lasting up to 26 weeks, in which graduates complete a project or piece of work, while studying for one of two specially developed qualifications: the Graduate Certificate in Organisation and Management with Queen's University Belfast; or the Graduate Certificate in Professional Practice with the University of Ulster.
The scheme is funded by the Department of Employment and Learning under its Steps to Work programme.
Around a third of the 54,000 people claiming unemployment benefit in the province are under 25, according to recent figures.
"The employment prospects for graduates leaving university this year are possibly gloomier than they've ever been," said Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey.
"As a result of the economic downturn, Northern Ireland faces a situation whereby thousands of graduates now face considerable difficulty gaining employment.
"The Department is extremely supportive of this programme which will provide graduates with employability skills and the much needed experience that is often required to gain employment."
Dr Gerard O'Hare, chair of GAP and managing director of ParkerGreen International, said the programme has already had expressions of interest from more than 150 organisations in the private, public and voluntary sectors as well as over 250 graduate enquiries.
"The programme has been endorsed by the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the Chambers of Commerce; all are in agreement that we cannot afford to lose our next generation of graduates and a programme such as GAP is much needed," said Dr O'Hare.
"Employers can gain a lot from participating in the programme including benefiting from a graduate's fresh enthusiasm and skills, completion of a specific piece of work adding value to an organisation and the opportunity to be known as an employer of choice."
Employers who participate in GAP will not be required to pay a wage and every graduate will receive their current rate of benefit plus an additional weekly training bonus. An subsidy is available if an organisation is able to offer a permanent job to a GAP graduate.