Got the degree – now for the job

Many of the students who graduated this summer are having great difficulty finding work and, as Amy Denman explains, it’s often down to not having the necessary work experience

Nina Gillespie has just graduated from the University of Exeter with a first class degree in history. She’s enthusiastic – a “go-getter” in recruitment agency jargon. But despite this, Ms Gillespie, 23, is currently volunteering for a charity near her home in Manchester and struggling to find paid employment. She is far from alone. This summer there are thousands of graduates who are struggling to get a start in their dream career.

It seems that now even a first class degree from a well established university isn’t enough. As Ms Gillespie has discovered, employers take advantage of the huge numbers of graduates applying for jobs: “They ask for a wealth of experience, even for entry-level positions,” she says.

“Although I do have some good experience and skills, I sometimes feel that I am lacking in something and perhaps that is why I don’t make the cut.”

The demands from recruiters for experienced entry-level graduates seem unrealistically high: it can be challenging to juggle work experience and study and not all degrees provide the option of a placement year to gain industry experience. Meanwhile, working for free in your chosen industry is unaffordable for most. Ms Gillespie is typical of a growing number of cash-strapped graduates who are back living at home with their parents.

“I’m looking for a job working for a charity, preferably on environmental and sustainability issues or humanitarian issues,” she says. “Internships are great to get experience, but the majority of them are unpaid and based in central London. If I don’t live near London, how could I possibly afford to pay rent or pay for transport or food when all I get is a stipend? I have to live at home with my parents if I want to work for free, and unfortunately, that’s not near central London.”

The competitive labour market can be a big confidence knock for graduates such as Ms Gillespie, who has applied for many jobs. Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students, says: “Competition for jobs is now incredibly high. There needs to be a greater investment in careers guidance right from school through to leaving, to ensure that students are able to make informed, meaningful decisions about their career choices.” 

However, the graduate labour market is showing signs of improvement. At the end of July the Association of Graduate Recruiters released a report that predicts a 17 per cent rise in graduate job vacancies this year. The association’s chief executive, Stephen Isherwood, says: “The rise in vacancies and salaries shown in our summer report is fantastic news for graduates, and it is encouraging to see that employers are able to invest in graduate talent this way.” The rise in graduate job vacancies certainly shows a step in the right direction, but with more graduates than job vacancies, it is still a battle to find work.

Universities do provide career guidance, to support students and prepare them for the big job hunt. Some of these resources have proved to be highly successful for a number of institutions.

The Robert Gordon University, whose campus is in Aberdeen, Scotland, came out as one of the top universities in the UK for their employment rate. The survey, produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, shows that 97.7 per cent of graduates from this institution were either employed or in further study six months after their graduation.

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of the university, says: “The university maintains close contacts with employers so that they can advise what they require from our graduates. We work closely with employers at all stages of the student journey, from course development and accreditation to providing scholarships and work-based placements and experiences. In this way we produce graduates that employers want.”

Despite the efforts from universities across the UK, recruiters are still looking for more from their applicants. “The experience of graduates also varies significantly across universities,” Ms Pearce says. “Students from traditional redbrick institutions still fare much better in the graduate job market than those from other institutions considered to be ‘less prestigious’.”

Ms Gillespie suggests that employers could do more for graduates to help them reach their high expectations, such as provide “more paid internships and opportunities to learn the skills on the job, rather than expecting everyone to be completely pre-prepared for the world of work”.

The competitive job market means that both students and graduates need to take advantage of any advice and opportunities that are provided.

Will Richie, careers consultant team leader at Robert Gordon University, offers a word of advice to graduates: “There are a number of things that students can do to make themselves attractive to employers. Gaining as much exposure to the workplace and practising professionals as possible is key...

“Social media is also an increasingly important environment to recruiters when looking to fill graduate opportunities, and students must ensure their online presence is professional and connected, to enable employers to find them.”

And, he adds, “It is important that students dedicate time to job applications and ensure they spend a few minutes updating their CVs and addressing the criteria set out by the employer in job description and person specifications.”

So the 17 per cent rise in graduate job vacancies is a step in the right direction; it should provide some sort of hope to the graduates who are currently looking for employment. However, the graduate labour market still needs improvement – and recruiters and students need to pull together to reach a resolution to the employment battle.

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