A tale of two graduates

The difference between success and failure for today's graduates can often come down to the smallest stroke of luck. LSE alumnus Theron Mohamed speaks to two of last year's crop about their differing fortunes in the job market.

Despite the statistics, even graduates from Britain's top universities face a battle to land any job, let alone the one they want. They often find themselves trapped in volunteer work, burdened with the weight of their student loan.

Where are they now? Read the first article in this series here.

In the second of three articles about life after university, we contrast the journeys of two graduates of Oxford and the LSE: one is a rising star, studying for a master's degree and working for a top property firm in London, while the other is forced to live off his savings as a volunteer in Ecuador.

Olga Turner, property consultant

21-year-old Olga Turner grew up in Norfolk. She graduated from LSE with a first in Geography last summer. She’s been on the fast track to success ever since: after work experience and a summer internship at a leading property firm in London, she is now prospering on their graduate scheme, and recently put a deposit down on her own flat.

Olga has been passionate about cities and their development for a long time. She worked in her local council’s planning department for a month in 2009, where she was introduced to surveying and housing schemes.

In 2010, she was accepted on to a summer internship at a global property firm. She worked in the affordable housing department, where she conducted site visits, appraised properties and advised developers. She spent a further two weeks working with the urban design team.

“I’ve always been interested in how we interact with and shape our cities, so I wanted a career related to the urban environment,” she said.

Olga was raised to be fluent in Russian, her mother’s native tongue. This skill landed her a part-time position on her current employer’s Russian desk from January to May 2011. After exams, she continued for three months full-time.

Last spring, Olga applied for her employer’s planning and development graduate scheme. She wanted a breadth of experience, and time to decide which area of property to specialise in.

“It seemed to be the firm with the best prospects for graduates. Although I really liked the work I was doing for them already, I wanted to try something more design or planning related.”

Her application was successful, and she began the graduate scheme in September 2011, a two-and-a-half-year programme involving seven rotations across different departments. Her first position was on the residential valuations desk, which she thoroughly enjoyed.

“I was out inspecting homes every day. I visited some of London’s most high-value properties, which had stunning architecture and amazing technology: swimming pools would appear out of nowhere at the touch of a button.”

Olga began her second rotation with the planning team last month. Her employers are also sponsoring her pursuit of a master’s degree at UCL in International Planning. Completing the two-year course will allow her to take the exams needed to qualify as a chartered surveyor.

Understandably, she’s found working and studying to be a difficult balancing act: "Juggling a master’s with a job, and trying to be really good at both – it’s hard. I work at weekends, evenings, whatever it takes.”

Her greatest challenge has been the transition from student life to the working world. She said: “I’ve learned to work in a professional rather than an academic way: as a student you can work in spurts of inspiration or enthusiasm, whereas at work you have to perform every hour of the day.”

Olga highlights competition as the main reason for graduate unemployment.

“It’s hard to stand out but I think it’s possible,” she said. “If you’re motivated and willing to put in the hard work then you can get a job, no matter what your background or degree is in.”

She believes that speaking Russian led to her first big break, but the key to her success has been good forward planning: “A degree is what you make of it - going to a good university doesn’t guarantee you a good job. Leaving your career plans until the last minute can be dangerous. I narrowed my choices down over three years: I constantly tried different things, read widely and went to related lectures. That’s what really helped me to get a job.”

She has her work cut out in the coming months. She’s involved in planning the regeneration of a football stadium, and with the arrival of the Olympics in summer, business is booming.

“I’m really enjoying it. I get to work on high-level projects and I’m trusted to do things on my own. There’s such a diverse range of activities, from huge schemes to evaluating shop fronts.”

After completing her master’s degree, she hopes to qualify as a chartered surveyor and a professional town planner, and to be hired as a permanent employee.

Samuel Pearce, volunteer in Ecuador

Samuel Pearce was raised in Kent. His mother is a teacher and his dad is a surveyor. Last summer, he graduated from Oxford University with a 2:1 in Music.  Despite his academic credentials, Samuel has faced an uphill battle in the job market. He is currently volunteering on a sustainability project in Ecuador.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I didn’t apply to any jobs or internships at university. I’m regretting it now. If I could do it again, I would try to make myself a bit more employable,” he said.

He spent the summer after university earning money however he could. He said: “I managed to get by through doing odd jobs: gardening, carpentry, decorating, painting people’s houses – whatever I could get.”

Samuel has always been interested in the environment. Intent on travelling west for the winter, he applied to more than 50 environmental positions in the US, Canada and South America. He only received one offer: a reforestation project in Ecuador. Hoping to gain experience and improve his job prospects, he accepted.

In October, Samuel took part in a sailing race to St Lucia. From there he sailed to Venezuela, then travelled to Ecuador by bus. He arrived at the foundation’s camp last month, where he joined a team of five volunteers tasked with revegetating the hills around a town threatened by mudslides. His daily tasks include clearing spaces to plant trees, digging and carrying materials.

“A lot of it is repetitive, tiring, heavy manual labour. It’s the wet season at the moment, so when it’s not raining, it’s 35-degree heat. It gets to you after a bit.”

Hindered by an unrelated degree, Samuel has been applying for environmental positions without success. “It’s been hard work, I’ve been looking for jobs for eight months now. I thought a degree from Oxford would be more transferrable, but people seem to just write it off straight away. By changing fields so dramatically, I haven’t made things easy for myself.”

He believes the difficult job market is a result of too much caution. He said: “Employers don’t want to take risks. It takes effort and resources to train interns, so they won’t hire them unless they’re absolutely needed.”

Samuel plans to return home later this year. He’s applied for summer placements with environmental policy groups in the UK, but hasn’t heard back.

“It’s been pretty fruitless,” he said. “I’m in a catch-22 position: all the internships demand prior experience, but I can’t get that without a relevant degree. And a lot of master’s courses won’t accept people without work experience. I’m in limbo, just trying to get over this first hurdle.”

“The most frustrating part is I don’t know how to proceed to better my situation. I’m getting to the point where I’ll just accept anything I can get.”

Many of Samuel’s friends have landed jobs through internships or contacts, but he doesn’t want to rely on nepotism. He said: “I want to look back and say ‘I got this job, it was really bloody hard work to get it, but I managed it’.”

Samuel has been living off his savings in recent months, and money is a constant concern. “It’s difficult,” he said. “I’ve tried to do everything as cheaply as possible, but it won’t last forever. Every time I take money out of the bank, it’s like a blood donation – it’s leaving and not coming back.”

Despite his hardships, he has no plans to abandon his job search. “I want to feel like I’m making a difference,” he said. “I don’t want a well-paid, meaningless job; I’d rather have a worse-paid job that actually helps people.”

“I’m committed to finding a job in this sector. I’m just going to keep at it.”

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