Fast-track to nowhere

A degree used to be the passport to a better job, but with graduate numbers outstripping supply, these days you're more likely to end up in a betting shop
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The Independent Online

At no time during his four-year French degree or in the three subsequent years teaching English in Japan did Paul Escott, 26, see himself working as a full-time cashier in a bookies. Paul came back to the United Kingdom last August, with a view to getting his first UK graduate job - something to match his qualifications and experience. What he found, however, was not what he was expecting.

At no time during his four-year French degree or in the three subsequent years teaching English in Japan did Paul Escott, 26, see himself working as a full-time cashier in a bookies. Paul came back to the United Kingdom last August, with a view to getting his first UK graduate job - something to match his qualifications and experience. What he found, however, was not what he was expecting.

"I never thought I'd be taking 50p bets from stoned Jamaicans," he says with a smile. "In some ways I feel like a victim of my degree." Nowadays, he says, degrees are a dime a dozen.

Escott graduated in 2000 with a French degree from the University of East Anglia (UEA), where he spent his time "treating everything as a joke". He had a great time at UEA, and says that university life was the "mutt's nuts". He says he never gave a second thought to career development. "I did any old degree I knew I could pass, without any regard for where it would lead. If I ever made my mind up about anything at university, it was that I wouldn't make my mind up," he says.

Paul is one of an increasing number of graduates who are finding that their time in higher education was worth very little when it comes to getting a job. Although he says his priorities are not financial, and that he is reluctant to spend his life on the career ladder, Paul admits that he is not now where he wants to be.

In a book published last month, Anthony Hesketh of Lancaster University and Phil Brown of Cardiff University explain why cases like Paul's are increasingly common. Their study, The Mismanagement of Talent - Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy, found that the number of graduates being turned out by universities is far greater than the number of graduate jobs available.

The authors call into question the traditional notion of a degree being a key to guaranteed career success, saying that university credentials, "do no more than permit entry into the competition for tough-entry jobs rather than entry into the winner's enclosure."

Dr Charles Johnson, who chairs the British Psychological Society's steering committee on test standards, says that the situation is exacerbated by the mismatch of priorities between employers, on the one hand, and universities, on the other.

"Although students are prepared academically, it's not the same thing as understanding what work is all about," he says. "Universities are not providing the new skills that employers are looking for." He sees a marked distinction between courses that include careers guidance and skills-based training and courses that are purely academic.

"There is clearly a danger that there will be a very large number of disappointed graduates," he says. "There are just not the numbers of so-called graduate jobs for all the people leaving university."

Paul has experienced this reality. After a string of unsuccessful job applications and interviews, he began to recognise that he lacked many of the tangible workplace skills that most graduate vacancies require.

Fortunately, the "skills gap" phenomenon has become so widespread that there is now a range of resources to which people like Paul can turn for guidance. One is Real World, a magazine dedicated to graduates who can't find work. Tom Barlow, the editor, says that the landscape of graduate recruitment has changed over the past few years.

"Graduates are now having to face the reality that a degree is no longer a passport to riches and a dream job," he says. A big increase in the number of people graduating means that the nature of graduate jobs has to be reassessed. "Graduates are now taking on jobs that 20 years ago would not have been taken by people with degrees. The rise of call centres is a classic example; there are a lot of call centres where the minimum requirement is a degree now, whereas 10 years ago that was unheard of."

Universities have been found wanting when it comes to preparing students for life in the workplace, says Barlow. "If you haven't really thought about a career at university, when you're suddenly out there panic can set in. At careers fairs you see a lot of confused people who are not really prepared for the world of work."

Real World is aimed as much at educating undergraduates as those who have left university. The magazine confronts the misconceptions that students hold about the working world and makes them aware of the range of career paths available.

Lucy Madahar from Graduate Prospects says that a lot of graduates make the conscious decision not even to think about careers until after university. "They end up graduating and then thinking: 'Now what am I going to do?'," she says. "Because they have no idea of a career path, they take whatever is available while they try to work out some direction."

But according to data published by Prospects, these temporary unskilled jobs are turning into permanent jobs, especially for those with degrees in arts and humanities. A Graduate Prospects survey tracking the destination of those leaving university in 2001 found that clerical and secretarial occupations were by far the most popular destination for graduates of history, geography and psychology. While this may be great news for employment agencies, it makes bleak reading for those entering university with the impression that they will get a head start.

Universities are reluctant to admit negligence in preparing students for the workplace. Wilma Martinelli, the director of the centre for careers and skills development at City University in London, says that blaming universities for the lack of guidance on careers is unfair. Contrary to Dr Johnson, she believes that university career services have moved on in the last few years and have become more aware of the skills agenda. The careers centre at City - which markets itself as "the University for Business and the Professions" - provides a whole range of services including presentations, interview practice, advice on CVs, and an assessment centre. The service also arranges events with companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG to give advice on life in the workplace. However, Martinelli says that a lot of students just do not realise what is available. "Many students get to university and a career is the last thing they are thinking about. We try to encourage them to come to the careers centre from year one and to start thinking now, [but] you can only offer these things, you cannot force students to attend."

Irrespective of the quality and range of resources on offer, Martinelli's message to students is that getting a job is about using your own skills and abilities and not just expecting universities to do it for you. Whether as an undergraduate with a mission for indecision Paul would have taken advantage of the kind of resources that Martinelli offers is uncertain. What is clear, however, is that the leap from university into work is becoming increasingly difficult.

education@independent.co.uk

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