Go Higher: Open the doors of opportunity

Despite the changing labour market, having a degree remains a major advantage. By Chris Brown
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The Independent Online
So come on then, why do a degree? What is stopping you from simply taking your chances and jumping feet first straight into the job market? After all, employers these days are looking for "communication skills", "team work", "positive attitudes" and the rest. These are not skills to do with your academic ability; rather they say more about your personality and motivation to succeed.

But a degree does more than give you academic training, and will give you the keys to the door of a successful career if you play your cards right.

There is a more confused job market for graduates now than, say, 10 years ago. The explosion of information technology has created a whole new industry which graduates are filling fast. But the massive increase in the numbers entering higher education during the Nineties has meant that many are leaving universities and colleges and starting out in what could be politely called "lower-end" jobs.

"We find graduates are very confused by the labour market," says Tom Lovell, manager of Reed Graduates - part of Reed Personnel Services plc. "There is no set path for them after they leave university. The days when they left college and walked straight into a graduate training programme are over, and with so many more career options opening up, people have to reinvent themselves throughout their working lives to respond to changes in the market."

If it is confusing for graduates who are desperately trying to find work and start paying back those debts, how confusing must it be for those planning on making the jump into higher education?

The good news is, just doing a degree in itself provides you with skills that will get you ahead. Peter Clark, senior policy adviser at the Confederation of British Industry, says: "Graduates have two key advantages. First, during their time at university they have more chance to develop their academic skills. Many employers are still looking for outstanding graduates with high-level academic skills, for example in science and engineering. In this respect, it is definitely a case of quality over quantity.

"Second, a degree demonstrates the ability of graduates to learn. There are many vacancies these days in any discipline. They need the generic transferable skills of team working and communication skills, but to get ahead they need to marry that with the intellectual and analytical skills of their degree to keep on learning throughout their career."

The pace of change in the job market means skills have to be constantly updated, and without the core ability to learn it will be much harder for people to succeed at work. Employers need to get more out of their employees, who need to encompass broader roles and a wide range of skills.

What does this mean for your degree choice though? Should you be looking for a vocational degree or a pure academic path? Mr Lovell identifies a conundrum facing graduates and employers at the moment. "There is a double-edged view as to how business sees graduates. There are those graduates from older universities with good academic degrees, but without some of the key work skills; and those from newer universities who have done vocational degrees, but may be lacking in the pure academic learning skills. We find that some higher calibre people who go to older colleges may be missing out on graduate jobs because they lack some of these key work skills."

It appears to be somewhat of a cleft stick. Whether to choose a good academic degree from a traditional "red-brick" university, or to get those vocational skills from a modern college. But there is no reason to feel confused. Going on to higher education is far more than just getting a job at the end of it. And employers are not cast in stone. Your chances of finding work are up to you.

"It is up to the individual to make choices about what is best for their future," says Mr Clark. "We certainly believe that students can do more to help themselves while they are at college, in terms of gaining work experience. But the most important thing is to get your degree. The degree is still the main purpose of higher education. We don't want students jeopardising their degree in order to get work experience, but if they have the chance we would applaud them as it gives employers a chance to see how the individual reacts to the workplace, their motivation and so on."

The main advice is that a degree gives you the key to the doors of a successful career. But opening the door is not enough. You have to persuade the gatekeepers that you are worth them letting you through. Don't worry though, there is no need to try and be something that you are not. Mr Lovell says: "When graduates start going for interviews, it is important that they are as professional and honest as possible. Employers know they are "green", coming straight out of university, but trying to pretend is not necessary or usually very successful. When employers look at you, they want to see someone who is going to develop and improve: an achiever."

For information on graduate opportunities, call Reed Personnel Services on 0500 35 36 37