Dodge the Milkround: graduate schemes are not the only route

This is the time of year that finalists are starting to panic. It's not just the fast-approaching end of university; it's also the pressure to land a good job. But, says Sabina Usher, there are credible options beyond the Milkround

From inside the university bubble, it can often feel like Deloitte, KPMG, Accenture and the other corporate campus-giants are the only brands with genuine job opportunities for graduates out there. In fact, there seems to be two options; either get a place on a formal scheme built on buzz words like ‘rotation’ and ‘leadership programme’, or become destitute.

With Christmas gone and a New Year beginning in earnest, I’m sure you’ve been subject to the inevitable familial interrogation, ‘so what are your plans for after university?’ Cue collective sigh. Yes- the prospective post-university abyss combined with the current economic and employment climate is enough to drench any student with woeful anxiety.

And who could blame students? When your desk is covered in branded goods from stress balls to wall charts, and your social calendar is crammed full of presentations by corporate top-dogs, it’s understandable that students feel their futures must be with big companies.

As an undergraduate at York last year, I certainly got caught up in the Milkround panic. Christmas and Spring terms were a frenzy of applications and cover letters for roles I didn’t quite understand or really know if I wanted to commit the next two years of my life to. The endless time-consuming applications began to take over my life with night time activities becoming absorbed by psychometric tests and waxing lyrical about my potential value to ‘x’ graduate scheme. And all for the inevitable email no graduate wants to receive: ‘many thanks but your application will not be taken forward at this time.’

Saturated labour market

With the graduate labour market saturated and an average of 73 grads applying for each role, this predicament will be becoming all the more familiar with graduates. By this time last year, I hadn’t had any success and spent the Christmas holidays trying again. The deadlines for companies I thought were my first choice had passed but a second round approached and so I kept researching. All this on top of the inevitably hectic rush of third year finals; otherwise known as the pinnacle of three years hard work.

Students should be focusing on these defining academic achievements that will stay with them for life, not on time absorbed looking for jobs. There are lots of other ways into almost all sectors. Having gone through the Milkround in my final year, I know how much time it takes. I also know that big corporations propagate a myth that there will be no valuable opportunities later on. The reality is different.

Grad schemes are great if you aspire to work for the Big 100 or know which sector you want to go into. But the culture of work has changed in recent times, with more flexibility and fluidity within the labour market that seems to make the rigid grad scheme infrastructure seem rather anachronistic.  Who knows what they want to do at 21? If you do, I envy you.

Ever thought of an internship at an SME?

The minority of students win a ‘golden ticket’ graduate scheme path- so what’s all the fuss about? At the beginning of 2012, SMEs accounted for 99.9 per cent of all private sector businesses in the UK with an estimated £3,100 billion in turnover. Yes, I was surprised as well. Graduates have a huge amount to offer SMEs looking to expand, and many offer internships. Yet, the SME route does not immediately spring to mind for most graduates considered their post-university career prospects.  

Internships have got some pretty bad press of late, the term becoming synonymous with unpaid labour. I don’t need to regale you will the current rhetoric of Britain’s unpaid graduate army being exploited due to their desperation to gain work. The law is irritatingly vague on the issue and boils down to subjective semantics; under employment law, people who work set hours, do set tasks and contribute value to an organisation are ‘workers’ and are entitled to the minimum wage. Thus, it is left up to companies to decide what can be defined as ‘valuable’ or a ‘worker’ or what constitutes ‘set hours.’ 

But times are changing. Internships are no longer just two weeks of work experience at your dad’s law firm refining skills in photocopying and barista training. Furthermore, an internships bill set for 01/03/13 hopes to ban the advertisement of unpaid internships and, if it passes, will go some way in tackling this cultural problem. Paid internships undeniably need to become the exception and not the norm. But more than this, internships need to become an acclaimed alternative to the institutionalised grad scheme.

Internships offer an opportunity to ‘test-drive’ a potential job or sector. They are a great way of gaining valuable work experience in a variety of sectors as well as determining whether a chosen sector is for you. Internships at small and medium businesses are likely to offer you key training and work alongside key employers. They are personal, varied and you’re likely to be given greater responsibility which can then go on to further your career in larger firms with highly transferable skills, if that’s an aspiration.

Graduate schemes are great for the right person, but they not the only option out there. I ‘test-drove’ three different internships after my graduation. Yes, these gave me valuable transferable skills and work experience and furthered my career prospects. But more importantly, I’ve completely changed my career ‘plan’ as a result.  Now, months later, I am working at an SME called Instant Impact, a company that unites fast-growing SMEs with the very best students and graduates. As someone who personally experienced the Milkround nightmare, is somewhat satisfying to finally be helping my contemporaries find their way into the big bad world of ‘careers.’ Be patient, have faith and try new things. Something better might be just around the corner.

Sabina Usher is a History graduate from the University of York.

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