Education: Degrees that almost guarantee jobs

Maureen O'Connor
Thursday 20 November 1997 00:02

There was a time when graduating with a good degree was a passport to the world of full-time employment. Not any more. Choosing the right course now is vitally important for the future career prospects of tomorrow's graduates, as Maureen O'Connor reports

Prospective students still agonising over their UCAS form or whether to take on the increased financial commitment of studying for a degree can get some useful advice from What Do Graduates Do 1998, out next week. Not only does the guide tell you what last year's graduates did, it also spells out which subjects lead where in an increasingly volatile employment market in which a "career for life" is a thing of the past.

The guide is written by a group of careers advisers and based on the annual graduate employment survey carried out by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (CSU) in Manchester. And its main message is encouraging. Even though there are more graduates competing for jobs each year, employment prospects are good and improving. Vacancies advertised through the careers service rose by 31 per cent this year and employers are forecasting further increases.

But the market is changing. The proportion of graduates employed by small and medium sized companies is increasing, and they are likely to be looking for recruits who already have a set of "usable skills". Equally, the number of graduates on short-term employment contracts is increasing, reflecting the decline of the job-for-life and an increasing tendency for recent graduates to take short-term employment before finding something better.

Graduates now enter a wide range of jobs, almost irrespective of their subjects of study. They still go into traditional areas like teaching, accountancy and retail management, and increasingly into information technology and sales. But 15 per cent of 1996 graduates, particularly those with arts degrees, went into clerical and secretarial jobs - which could simply be a stop-gap or might possibly turn into a stepping stone to higher things.

Science graduates on the other hand, who did not find work linked to their particular discipline, tended to move into information technology and computing. "There is no such thing as a career path - it's crazy paving and you lay it yourself," says Robin Linnecar of The Change Partnership Ltd.

Starting salaries vary enormously too. Graduate jobs advertised between May 1996 and May 1997 in Prospects Today, which goes to 75,000 final year students, offered starting salaries of between pounds 5,000 and pounds 26,000. But eighty per cent fell between pounds 11,849 and pounds 16,500, with just 3.7 per cent below the pounds 10,000 threshold at which graduates will have to start paying back their loans under the new system of student finance being introduced next year.

Most graduate employers are looking for three things, the guide suggests: core transferable skills such as good communication and problem-solving abilities, self-reliance and the ability to work with others; a good academic record and work experience. Graduates aiming at very competitive fields like investment banking may find that their A Level grades as well as their degree class may be important with employers seeking "consistently high academic performance".

Many others, looking for careers as diverse as the law, teaching and science, will find that further study is necessary. So too will those beginning their higher education with a Higher National Diploma, from which more than half continue on to a degree course.

Although employers are as interested in a job applicant's overall quality as his or her degree subject, CSU's survey does throw some light on relative unemployment rates and career prospects. It is not bad information to have if you are hovering between applying for media studies or law, or chemistry or computer studies.

Law is an interesting case in point. It is one of the most popular degree courses, and many courses demand high A Level grades. But if you are looking for employment immediately after graduation there is a catch. Only 28.6 per cent of law graduates find work immediately, though only 4.6 per cent are unemployed six months after graduation. The rest - 51.2 per cent of them - feel the need to continue with post-graduate study, because that is what most legal careers demand. A first degree is not sufficient.

And there are other subject areas from which high proportions of new graduates remain in education before looking for work: 25 per cent in maths, 30 per cent in history, 33 per cent in English, 40 per cent in physics. In some subject areas, a further qualification may be voluntary. But as well as the legal profession, teaching, social work, psychology and some professional engineering, careers generally require some further training.

Are there any subjects which offer a cast-iron guarantee of a job? Of course there are some degree courses which remain fairly vocational in the traditional sense. Sending 85 per cent of its graduates straight into work, and with only 5.8 per cent unemployed after six months, education is the top scoring subject for people who want jobs as soon as they graduate.

Surprisingly, though, only two thirds of education graduates went into teaching in 1996 - the rest spreading themselves across a wide range of administrative and managerial jobs. It only goes to show that employers and graduates are prepared to be flexible and shop around.

Other areas which send the majority of their graduates directly into jobs related to course of study are business and management, computing and civil engineering. But unemployment is particularly high for civil and electrical engineering graduates. And chemistry graduates, 40 per cent of whom carry on to further study, seem to have particular difficulty in finding jobs related to their degree.

Most problematic of all, in terms of job prospects, are the courses which are creative, extremely popular, look highly vocational but where related job prospects are actually very poor.

Art and design courses perform best in this area. More than 60 per cent of graduates found jobs last year, although unemployment was high at 13.3 per cent. But only 20 per cent of first jobs were art-related, and another 16 per cent "creative". The rest had to make do with the usual range of jobs in administration and sales, with a significant proportion working as waiters, check-out operators and bar staff.

It is a similar story for graduates in drama and music, only seven per cent of whom ended up as actors and six per cent as musicians, and for media studies graduates, 11.9 per cent of whom were still unemployed after six months and only 14 per cent of whom ended up with those coveted jobs in journalism and TV. These are the areas where you may find the course satisfying but the job you coveted at the end of it very elusive indeed.

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