When Robert Spruce graduated from Loughborough University with a 2:2 in electrical engineering, he already had two fantastic job offers lined up with major industry players. But that was back in 1997, and things are different now.
New figures show that more than half of all universities in the UK are set to increase their fees this year, with the average creeping up to £8,500 per student.
Meanwhile, last summer as many as six in 10 students graduated without a job, and many of those that found work were forced into ‘low-skilled employment’ such as shelf-stacking and road sweeping. It might not be what those picking up their A-level results today want to hear, but in terms of return-on-investment, the numbers aren’t adding up.
Kira Weir, 24, studied at Edinburgh Napier University and graduated in June last year. Throughout her degree she worked two jobs, and three weeks before her final coursework deadline took on a full-time retail job to make ends meet.
“I was working seven days a week from April until September, and would apply for at least 10 other jobs a day. Eventually I secured a role as a receptionist at my university which had high hourly pay but a zero-hour contract, so it provided no financial stability. More often than not I was told I didn’t have enough experience for the basic roles I was applying for.”
The experience conundrum is something that plagues graduates the length and breadth of the country. Simply having a degree can make candidates overqualified for some roles, but a lack of hands-on practical knowledge stops them getting a foot in the door. How are you supposed to get experience if no-one will give you the chance to get experience?
Enter internships, the subject of heated debate in recent times due to their increasing necessity in gaining employment. But they present their own challenges. As Kira says, many of the better internships – which pay a wage and foster a relationship with the company – aren’t open to graduates, designed instead as sandwich placements, or between-years summer roles.
Graduate internships, however, have been condemned by critics as free labour, since few offer decent remuneration, and such a high turnover of candidates mean interns are faced with the challenge of standing out among a flood of equally eager faces.
Southampton Solent graduate Amy Williams found herself in this position, draining her savings from part-time jobs in order to complete an unpaid six-week internship, and even then, she says, she was lucky: “My boyfriend at the time was a student in London, so I stayed with him during the internship. But I wouldn’t have been able to afford to do it for much longer."
However, for more technically inclined graduates – science and engineering students, and those seeking to work in manufacturing, for instance - there is still plenty of opportunity.
Companies such as Rolls Royce, Airbus and Dyson – not to mention Britain’s not-inconsiderable automotive manufacturing base - all offer comprehensive training and employment, geared especially towards graduates. Dyson’s graduate recruitment page even states: ‘inexperience required’. Slick mini-sites and gleaming testimonials from recently employed grads show that there are employers out there that genuinely value the fresh perspective career newbies can bring to a company.
But there is a growing need for students to look ahead when it comes to their careers, right from the get-go.
“Times are hard for fresh graduates entering the labour market, but there are graduate jobs out there and top employers are still recruiting,” says Nadim Choudhury, head of career services and employability at the London School of Business and Finance. “The key differential is that competition is more fierce, and students must do everything in their power to stand out from the crowd.”
He adds that new students need to “take more ownership of their careers” from an early stage. “Most graduates who research their sector thoroughly and are commercially aware should be able to achieve a graduate job within six months of graduating,” he says.
Nadim also notes that universities are increasingly investing in employability pathways to ensure students are making the most of their free time and holidays – something Ross Whistler from graduate-jobs.com says has come from the fees hike.
“Careers services have really started to buck their ideas up," he says. "Traditionally they’ve had a reputation for being a bit dud, but now students are paying so much they’re really making sure they’re doing as much as possible to get students jobs when they leave.”
Ross also adds that students shouldn’t feel confined by their degree subjects when looking for work, and that today’s graduate job market – while more competitive than “the good old days” – does offer the benefit of skills fluidity. “Traditionally people got a degree in a particular subject, got a job in that area and then stuck with it for the whole of their career. Nowadays, people move not just jobs but industries more fluidly, acquiring skills that can be transferred to a whole host of other roles.”
He also says that students should be prepared to invest a year or two in a ‘starter’ job before getting the job of their dreams. “This isn’t a negative thing. ‘Beginner’s roles’ provide a solid employment grounding and teach those all-important transferable skills. Plus, it may be that after a year or two doing such a role, you’ve changed your mind about what it is you want to do further down the line. It’s pretty rare for a new graduate to walk straight into their ideal job.”
Rare, perhaps, but not impossible. You're likely to hear as many good graduate job-hunting experiences as you do negative ones. York University graduate Charlotte MacDonald finished her studies and was hired in a matter of weeks as an editorial assistant at a publishing house, for example. Sarah Holliday is graduating this year and has already secured a great job as staff photographer for fashion company Kurt Geiger. Paddy Garrigan left Leeds Metropolitan University and walked straight into a job as a technical director. This list goes on.
These individuals prove that the graduate employment market is not as bleak as it may seem. In fact, according to a survey by High Fliers Research, graduate recruitment has actually increased slightly – up 4.6% since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. Furthermore, according to the National Careers Service, 74% of the UK became more job confident or confident in their ability to find work over the last three months.
“Things are getting better,” says graduate-jobs.com’s Ross Whistler. “It’ll be some time before things return to pre-recession levels, but by and large things are looking better for the students prepared to put the extra effort in to nurturing their career prospects.”