Thank God it's not Friday

Graduates on short-term contracts need to rethink their ideas if they are to stay afloat in the job market.
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The Independent Culture
WHEN DANNY Tyler, now aged 25, left university in 1995, he landed a six-month contract with a multi-media company. This was his first proper job and he was anxious to do well, in the hope that the company would find a permanent place for him. He worked long hours and tried hard, but as his contract drew to a close Tyler began to realise that he wasn't going to be kept on.

"It felt really weird: my last Friday came to an end and the boss just said, `Thanks for all your work; good luck with your future,'" recalls Tyler. "Initially I felt under-appreciated, but then I started to worry about what I'd done wrong. It was a horrible time. It took about three months before I even applied for anything else."

The drop in self-esteem and lack of motivation experienced by Tyler when his contract came to an end are not unusual. When not kept on at the end of a contract, people will often experience a period of motivation-sapping self-doubt that can drastically affect their chances of finding another job quickly.

Everyone knows that being told you're not needed at work any more and getting sacked are miserable events that often leave you with no money, no future prospects and a serious ego dent. The feelings experienced when a short-term contract comes to an end are less well documented or understood, yet in cases such as Tyler's they are as joyless and damaging as being sacked in the traditional sense.

Jo-Ellen Gryzb, director of the career consultancy The Impact Factory, has a theory about why people react so badly when they find out that short term does mean just that. "These are the Nineties, but people think with an Eighties attitude. It's a fact that many employers exploit the fresh minds of graduates; they use them up and then get the next lot in. This means that there is definitely no such thing as a job for life any more, yet graduates go into short-term contracts expecting to be kept on at the end. When that doesn't happen, it's a real slap in the face and their self-confidence just goes. They feel as if they've been sacked."

As Gryzb says, short-term contracts are a fact of modern working life. A fact of which, according to surveys, students are well aware. In a 1997 poll by Reed Personnel, 81 per cent of 12,000 final-year students saw job security as "a thing of the past", citing "extreme competition from a huge number of graduates" and "work experience being more important than a degree" as the two main problems facing them.

While these findings show that, in theory, students are pretty clued- up about the insecurities of the job market, further questioning revealed several anomalies in their ideas. When asked for their personal career predictions, well over half said that they "expected to find work in their chosen profession" and that they expected "to stay with their first employer for two or three years". One year on, Reed caught up with the same students and discovered that more than half of them were working on short-term contracts or were employed as temporaries, and that 44 per cent were "worried and depressed about the world of work".

According to Gryzb, graduates need to rethink their ideas if they are to stay afloat in the job market: "When you get a job you need to really get in there and seek out the champions of the company - the ones who get things done - and make yourself known to them. A proactive attitude is essential. Once you get one job you should start looking for another one immediately. You should also make sure that you get a written reference at the end of the contract. It will really help if you've got something to show someone else straightaway.'

Useful advice for the lucky graduates who manage to get an "in" to their chosen profession; but what of those who don't? Of the 12,000 students surveyed by Reed, 63 per cent hadn't made it into the profession of their choice a year after graduation, and were either unemployed, working as temporaries or employed in other professions.

Jane Cameron, 24, from Manchester, planned on embarking on a career in advertising when she finished at university. Instead she's been hired for and fired from three separate secretarial jobs with three different agencies since she moved to London a year ago.

"I needed to earn money immediately on graduation, so I got a secretarial job through an agency and started sending out applications to ad agencies in my spare time," she says. "For a few months the idea of eventually getting an advertising job kept me going, but after hearing nothing I got fed up and extremely `attitudinal' at work. I was getting really bitter and frustrated, and it showed. Eventually they sacked me and the agency let me go."

Nine months on, Cameron is still looking for a break into advertising while doing secretarial work: "In no way do I want to be a secretary, but it really scares me that I've been sacked three times in one year. All I'm doing is trying to hold on to the idea that I'm worth more than secretarial work, but I let that attitude come through much too often, and I can't seem to control it. Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with me. Even if I ever did get an interview with an ad agency, I'd never get a decent reference."

While Cameron may feel "different" in her attitude, she is not alone. Many graduates who take clerical work as a fill-in until they can get the job they want get frustrated.

Geraldine Keady, at Adecco Alfred Marks, says that graduates often have the wrong attitude: "They dress in a very artsy, studenty way and then walk in expecting to get a top job straightaway. I don't think they get very much advice from their careers officers at university."

Jo-Ellen Gryzb echoes Keady's views: "I'm often shocked by the poor standard of careers advice given to many students, and I think it's a big cause of the problems they have later. These are problems that could be avoided if people were taught that the rules you operate under in the workplace are different to those you operate under in life. It's simple but true."