Graduate Careers: bridging the gap between graduates and employers

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR, looks at the important role played by career guidance in bridging the gap between graduates and employers

I entered the world of graduate recruitment in 1989 and remember thinking how easy a life it would be. After all, graduates were well-educated, mature and intelligent and I assumed they would know what they wanted to do with their lives, how to go about it and be able to communicate this to employers.

How wrong can you be? Many of the graduates I met were unprepared, uninformed and lacking in self-awareness. They struggled to demonstrate what it was they wanted from a job and what they could bring to it. It did not take me long to work out that much needed to be done to bridge the gap between graduates and employers.

But that was then, and careers professionals and ICG members are now much more interested in the state of play. I meet with more graduate recruiters than any other person in the UK and while the gap may have narrowed, from what they tell me, there is some distance still to be travelled.

Fortunately (for the graduates as well as my sanity) I no longer recruit graduates, but members of AGR appoint over 25,000 graduates annually and while they are not looking to recruit the finished article, they do have high expectations of what a graduate recruit should be able to offer.

The process of bridging the gap should begin before the student reaches university. Going to university is about making a personal choice and young people need access to accurate information and impartial advice. It should not be assumed that bright sixth-formers automatically go straight to university or that the academically able don't need help.

Students may have no idea what they will do with their degree and that's fine, as long as they realise that university is not an end in itself. It should be viewed as an investment and like all investments, you should understand how to get the best returns. I worked with Dr Peter Hawkins at the University of Liverpool's Graduate into Employment Unit on a resource entitled If Only I'd Known, which spelt out how students could maximise the benefits of the HE experience. Hawkins and I did not recommend a crash careers course in the last few weeks at university. Our advice was to start thinking about the day you graduate on the day you begin your studies and plan both academic and extra-curricular activities.

Students should regularly reflect on what they have learnt and record it so that they can then call upon the experience in the future. The introduction of personal development plans into HE should help with this. Using the same technique they should also be able to identify gaps in their knowledge and experience in time to do something about it.

I have worked hard to raise the profile of employability in higher education, working alongside inspired colleagues such as Val Butcher, Margaret Dane, Peter Knight and Lee Harvey. I have extolled the virtues of embedding employability skills in the higher education curriculum until I am blue in the face. Many careers service practitioners have been banging the same drum and over the past five years there has been a marked shift in the attitudes of academics. The shift to a buyer's market following the advent of top-up fees has probably helped.

My biggest concern is for the students and their ambivalence towards their own employability. Careers advisers and academic staff must sell the importance of students taking responsibility for their own learning and their own career at the earliest possible stage; employers should be on hand to lend their support. Bearing in mind how many graduates do not start their working life in a career, and how many more will make a career change in the early years at work, the importance of taking personal responsibility for their own employability cannot be over stated.

The key message is that a degree on its own is not enough. Today employers look for a good degree plus a combination of skills, understanding, experience and personal attributes as well. Graduates need to understand the world of work. The pace of change is frightening. New careers are emerging while others disappear. There's a quote in If Only I'd Known that sums it up perfectly: "There's no such thing as a career path. It's crazy paving and you have to lay it yourself!".

The transition from higher education to employment can be fraught. Despite a healthy growth in graduate vacancies over the past three years, competition for the best jobs remains intense. Employer expectations have risen and recruitment processes are more stringent. Many finalists will require signposting to accurate information and impartial advice. Others will need support, encouragement and practical help with their job search. A few will need their hands holding as they make the transition to employment. However, I hope that by the time they start applying for jobs most will have reached the point where they can take personal ownership and control.

Figures have recently been released showing a rise in drop-out rates from UK universities. There is an argument that to meet the widening participation agenda we have to live with this and can expect further rises. What happens to students when they drop-out of university? In particular, what assistance can they expect to rebuild their dreams? I suspect that, as things stand, the answer is very little. I hope that between the Connexions service and higher education careers services something can be done to help rebuild the dreams of the growing numbers who, for whatever reason, do not complete their degree courses.

If you are still with me you may be wondering what happened to the careers guidance referred to in the introduction to this article. That's deliberate on my part. I used to know what careers guidance meant. Today I am less sure but I would postulate that the practices described add up to an effective strategy to help students in higher education make a satisfactory transition into the world of work. My apologies to the purists among you!

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