From Phd to pulling pints

Increasingly, graduates are having to start on the bottom rung or do jobs that are unrelated to their degrees. They don't seem to mind but their parents find the situation less easy to accept.
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Eric Pemberton is a disappointed man. He and his wife did their best to give their children a flying start. They sent all of them to independent schools and encouraged them to go to university. But the lives he now sees them living are not the ones he imagined successful young graduates to have.

Eric Pemberton is a disappointed man. He and his wife did their best to give their children a flying start. They sent all of them to independent schools and encouraged them to go to university. But the lives he now sees them living are not the ones he imagined successful young graduates to have.

One became a licensee, one works in a job agency, and one has dropped out of university to work in a DIY store. (Sadly, a fourth child died of leukaemia while still a student.)

"Have we done something wrong?" wonders Pemberton, a retired television technician. "Have we wasted our time and efforts? Or is this how it turns out these days? Is it a general trend that's besetting the country? I must admit, I'm at a loss."

But to his children, their choices are an entirely practical response to how the world is today. "When I look around at my peers, I see a lot of us are not working in the areas that we studied," says his eldest child, Anne Pemberton-Smith, 30, who gave up working towards a PhD in biology at Birmingham University to train with Bass and run an All Bar One in the city centre (which, she notes wryly, was "full of the kind of professional people my father wanted me to be").

She says that running the barwas more fun, and offered better pay and opportunities - and less sexual discrimination - than a life in scientific research, although now that she is pregnant she has given up the late hours to work at home with her husband in network marketing.

"But I can see that parents worry. I employed a lot of people in the bar whose parents were saying things to them like 'why don't you get a proper job', but I think the older generation see things through rose-tinted spectacles. It isn't that easy. Lots of jobs want degrees, but they also want experience, and so some people find they can't get anything."

For her brother, John, 23, giving up computer studies at Warwick University to work full-time at Homebase prior to joining the company's management scheme has been all about getting experience, although he also prefers working to studying, which he sometimes found difficult. "You've got money in your pocket, and a place of your own, and once you've left work, your time's your own. At university you have to live the life 160 hours a week."

He may or may not finish his degree later, but sees no problem with his long-term prospects provided he keeps up his IT skills. "It's just another way of getting to the same place. And some of my friends without degrees are already on £20 an hour."

"The thing is that, in my family, we're all people persons," says his sister, Kay Pemberton, 28, a graduate in medicinal and pharmacological sciences from Loughborough University, who now works in a Basingstoke job agency, after stints in pharmaceutical sales and as a manager for McDonald's. "Our parents wanted to give us the education they never had, and I really appreciate that. But at the end of the day, none of us were ever going to sit in a science lab or do computer programming all day."

She feels that she has a good package of management and sales skills under her belt and also the confidence to talk to people at all levels, including graduates who come into the agency looking for a job. "I don't think for a minute that I've wasted my degree. No, not at all."

In fact, says Lesley Knaggs, president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, and director of Lancaster University's career service, more and more graduates are now taking ordinary jobs and then "growing" them into graduate-level roles. "We're coming to see that a graduate job is a job that a graduate does. It's all changed enormously in the last five or six years. The boundaries are dissolving. It's one of the direct consequences of that ugly word 'massification'."

Twenty years ago, graduates belonged to the top 10 per cent of the population, now they are getting on for being merely one out of three. So while high-flyers can still aim for elite openings, the vast mass of ordinary graduates are having to look around for jobs that might once have seemed beneath them. "You could say that today's graduates are just the old, bright 18-year-olds but three years older and with a life experience under their belt," says Richard Pearson, director of the Institute of Employment Studies, based at Sussex University.

His Institute's recent study of the graduate market shows that many of each year's 200,000 graduate job-hunters will struggle to find their feet, especially those with humanities, languages and biological science degrees, and that graduates are increasingly dissolving into the general labour market, and having to compete with non-graduates for jobs with lower pay and more limited prospects than they might have expected.

"Which means it's all about managing expectations. It's about coming to realise that if you go to university, you might get a lot out of it, and be less likely to be unemployed than a non-graduate, but you might not necessarily get a top job."

"The gulf is definitely widening between the top 10 per cent of high-flying young professionals and the others. The next tier down is becoming very difficult," says Curly Moloney, who runs Moloney Search, a Kensington-based graduate recruitment and headhunting agency. She says that some clients complain that they have graduate applicants who can't even set out letters and CVs correctly. "You do sometimes wonder if people are spending three years in a very unstructured environment."

Meanwhile, she says, even high-fliers are starting to re-evaluate what they want from their working lives. "I've done 15 interviews this week, and probably seven have emphasised that they don't want to work like people used to a few years ago. I had one girl in who had only slept 40 nights in her own bed in the whole previous year because she was travelling so much.

"People don't want to do that any more, they don't want to work evenings and weekends, they don't see it as necessary, and if they are in the top tier they increasingly know that they can call the shots. People are looking for more balance in their lives."

And such clear-sighted pragmatism may be starting to filter down to the decisions young people take even earlier, as they wonder whether the burden of a huge student loan is going to be worth the prize of a degree of dubious worth. This year, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, only 5,000 extra students took up places, despite the additional 17,000 full-time places put into place by the Government in its drive to expand higher education, while the number of overall applicants dropped by nearly half a percent.

The message appears to be getting out that there are more routes to success than the tried and tested one of a traditional degree. Sarah Elton's son, Mark, has just dropped out of his history and sociology course at one of the newer universities to look for an on-the-job training place in accountancy. "Which was something that, as his tutor told us, took quite a lot of courage to do. But he said he didn't see the point of it, he wasn't getting the skills that people wanted. He worked while he was at university to earn money, and that was the part he liked best, working and getting paid for it.

"But the trouble is that, as parents, you always want the best opportunities for them, and you tend to think that if they get a degree they'll be all right and you won't have to worry."

Which, for John Pemberton, is exactly the problem. "Too many parents are expecting their children to go to university. They want to say 'my child's going to this university', when probably they'd be better off doing something else altogether. And then, on the other side, the universities take them, even when they shouldn't, because everyone who enrols has a price tag on their head."

Even so, for his father, things are not nearly so simple. He worries that his children will never achieve the good life - the six-bedroom house, the yacht and the seaside bungalow - that they grew up with, and that they are squandering the investment which society has made in their high-level education.

"If it was up to me, if I was dealing with young people, I'd probably try and get a commitment from them atthe start, so they don't go wasting everyone's time and money."