University College London is ranked 7th in the country for graduate employability by the Good University Guide – it’s about as good as any a university for landing a job after graduation. And still, today’s crop of young graduates are struggling with a shoddy job market, an overabundance of unpaid internships and increasing levels of debt.
In the first of three articles about graduate life after university, we contrast the starkly different paths of two of last year’s UCL graduates: one on the up-and-up, moving to Germany to work for a leading insurance broker, and the other stacking pins in a London bowling alley.
Katherine Wynter, insurance broker
Katherine Wynter, 21, is one of five children, born in north Essex to a full-time mother and a father who manages investments. Last summer, she graduated from UCL with a 2:1 in history. Her career has been on an astonishing upward curve more or less since she finished her degree; an internship led almost at once to a high-flying job offer in Germany, and it’s safe to say she’s quite pleased with how her working life is shaping up.
She used family contacts to arrange work experience as a paralegal and as a barrister’s apprentice, and to shadow an MP in Westminster. She intended to teach English abroad after university, so she also completed a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course last year.
“I knew that after university I wanted to move to a different country, learn a new language and get to know a different culture. I wanted to start afresh and build on everything I’d learnt and achieved.”
In October, Katherine was invited for work experience at a London insurance broker. Purely by chance, representatives of a German insurance firm visited her workplace in November. They met Katherine and decided that she would make a good employee.
“It was a bit of luck being in the right place,” she said. “They really liked me, and invited me to come to Cologne to see what they did. They paid for my flights and put me up in a four star hotel, and flew me out again for their Christmas party.”
Soon after her visit, she was offered a full-time job in Cologne. In December, she signed a two-year contract with them. However, leaving her friends and family wasn’t an easy decision.
“I was really enjoying my work in London, so a similar job in Cologne ticked all of my boxes. But I didn’t decide overnight. I was moving by myself to a foreign country, leaving everything I knew and starting a new life somewhere else.
It was a challenge, but I had to be positive and a bit brave, and just go for it.”
She started her new job last month. During her first week, she was taken aback by the expertise of her coworkers: “It quickly hit me how much I didn’t know. I felt a bit overwhelmed and daunted, but then I remembered it was my second day, and I wasn’t expected to know everything. From then on I’ve tried to work hard and take on board as much as I can, and I’ve accepted that I’m here to learn.”
Now that she’s settled in to her new job, Katherine is feeling positive about her situation: “I think I’ve been really lucky. I’m enjoying myself, and I’m excited about what I’m doing. I like meeting new people and getting to know a new city. My job involves meeting CEOs and directors of high profile companies from across the world, who really know their business inside out, so I’ve learnt a lot.”
It’s a busy schedule for the coming months. She’s currently studying for her Chartered Insurance Institute exams, and is taking business trips to Hong Kong, Switzerland and Las Vegas later this year.
Kiki Lawrance, bowling alley attendant
Kiki Lawrance grew up in Buckinghamshire. Both her parents work in charities, and her younger brother is still at university. She has found life after university hard-going, despite a good degree from an excellent university. In fact, such are her struggles, she’s even had difficulties securing unpaid internships, and, desperate to break into the media, she’s currently struggling to make ends meet by working in a bowling alley in London.
Last year, she graduated from UCL with a 2:1 in neuroscience. She spent the summer pursuing her greatest passion: drama. In July she toured Norway with the Iodine Teater, a physical theatre group, and in August she did theatre at Au Brana Cultural Centre in France.
Since graduating, Kiki has tried to pursue a career in science media. However, she’s found that many of the related jobs require a PhD, a time investment she’s unwilling to make. She has now turned her attention to other media jobs, but her lack of experience has been an obstacle to employment.
“I’ve offered three months of free work to 30 media companies, and they’ve asked if I have previous work experience. It seems to be a never-ending circle: unless you know media, you can’t get into media.”
Kiki highlighted the difficulty of finding out about jobs: unable to find a list of all the media companies in her area, she’s had to trawl the Internet and search for them. She blames nepotism for her fruitless search: “I’ve asked my friends how they found work, and it seems to be chance and family contacts that dictate success. It’s hard to accept that and still want to put 100 per cent into everything.”
After graduating, Kiki was unemployed for several months. Her lack of income presented new problems – “It made me feel indebted to my parents, who had to support me,” she said.
“I tried absolutely everything to not take from them. Also, some of my friends couldn’t understand. They would invite me to dinner and I’d think ‘that’s £15, that’s a week’s worth of food, I can’t do it’. It drove a wedge between me and them.”
In September, against her better judgment, Kiki took a job at a recruitment company, but within weeks, she had begun to resent the work.
“I was working 12-to-16-hour days. I’d come home, go to sleep, wake up and do it again. I took the job so that I could spend my evenings gaining experience in the arts and not bankrupt myself. But working those hours, I was too exhausted to do anything else. I became a really dull person; I didn’t have any fizz left. After three months I was in bits.”
She left in December, and in the following weeks she applied to more than 150 jobs in the arts, PA and media. In response, she received only one rejection, and discovered another huge hurdle that often faces willing young graduates: she didn’t even hear back from any of the others.
Last month, she took a job at a local bowling alley. She works three to five shifts a week for £7.50 an hour, and cites the steady income, flexible hours and the chance to meet people as her motivation.
“I never saw myself doing something like this. With all my friends going into media and law, it’s hard being the one that works at the bowling alley. However, it’s something to do. I love working, even if it’s menial tasks like getting bowling shoes for people or setting up lanes.”
Looking forward, her plan is to persevere with her applications and pray that she lucks out: “I plan to dip my toe into different types of media and see what really captures me. I also want to try arts administration, theatre work, acting and tutoring. I’ve got so much energy to do something, and I want a company to harness me. I’m just going to keep applying to all these things, and maybe somebody will give me a break soon.”