Jobless graduates exploited by employers using pandemic as excuse not to pay

Special report: Young people searching for a ‘life raft’ in the jobs market as some in paid positions told they will not receive wages

Anna Davis
Wednesday 01 December 2021 16:42
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<p>Law graduate Deepa Patel, 24, has applied for 40 jobs without landing a full-time role </p>

Law graduate Deepa Patel, 24, has applied for 40 jobs without landing a full-time role

Unemployed graduates are at risk from unscrupulous employers using the pandemic as an excuse to exploit them with low or no pay, experts warned today. They also report that university leavers desperate for a “life raft” are taking jobs only to be told they will not be paid “because of Covid”.

It comes as competition for graduate jobs is at a record high, with a backlog of former students from last year adding to the pressure on the job hunt for this year’s graduates. Latest government figures show the unemployment rate for graduates aged 21 to 30 is 6.3 per cent, compared to just 2.5 per cent for their older peers aged 31 to 40, and it is even lower for graduates aged over 40.

A report by the Institute of Student Employers found there are now more than 90 applications for every graduate position, a 17 per cent increase on last year and the highest number since data started being collected in 1999.

Tanya de Grunwald, founder of careers blog Graduate Fog, the Good + Fair Employers Club website, and author of How to Get a Graduate Job in a Pandemic, said the job market is currently a “wild west” for graduates. “The backdrop of the pandemic has given unscrupulous employers the perfect excuse to take advantage of young people who are either naive or vulnerable or desperate for a job. If you are a graduate looking for a job now there is a lot to be careful of. We saw something similar in the 2008 crisis. There is a struggle for a life raft.”

Graduates contact her seeking advice because they are stuck in unpaid internships, while others are being denied the wages that are rightfully theirs. “One graduate on a paid internship said she was suddenly told she will not be paid this month and probably not next month,” she said. “They told her, ‘you know how things are with Covid, the market’. I think some employers are using the pandemic to create a narrative around why graduates are getting low or late wages. It adds to this sense that young people should be grateful for anything they get, which undermines their sense of their own value.”

Duro Oye, chief executive of 2020 Change, a social enterprise that supports young black people flourish in the workplace, said the job market is “really bleak” for young graduates. “Even young people who ‘played the game’ and did everything right, went to school, got the grades, worked their butts off, are not able to land that first salaried role.”

The pandemic has made the situation worse, he said, because a lot of networking and recruitment opportunities have stopped or moved online. “Early on a lot of firms decided to close their doors and pull the rug from under their interns. So it was difficult for young people trying to get experience to be able to land their first job when they finish university. For young people it’s countless application after application and rejection after rejection and that takes its toll on you. There’s only so much rejection a person can take.”

He said this year is worse than ever because graduates are expected to take part in online interviews and remote working, a new skillset. He added that young people from poorer backgrounds are worse affected by the move to online interviews because they need access to strong internet connections, laptops with cameras, and a quiet space, which many do not have.

“If your internet keeps freezing or your mum’s in the background, there are so many barriers and it’s not the same for everyone,” he said. “Young people have drawn the short straw in the pandemic; they have been robbed of their youth, they weren’t able to have a full university experience and now they can’t enter into the job market.”

Ms de Grunwald said: “Graduates are vulnerable to the idea that their work isn’t really worth anything, which is just not true. All businesses need young people and their energy and ideas. I advise graduates to spend more time finding good employers who value them. Don’t take the first thing or unpaid stuff or anything with anybody who says ‘let’s see how it goes and maybe we will start paying you’.”

‘It is awful being rejected for jobs you don’t even want’

Harriet Cochrane, 21, graduated from King’s College London in the middle of the pandemic and is currently studying for a masters in broadcast journalism at City University.

“Students have not been able to build up enough work experience to land jobs because of Covid, and some, like me, have opted to further our studies and remain at university,” she said. “Beyond that there is a sense of complete purposelessness and hopelessness. One friend said it is awful being rejected for jobs you don’t even want. Some of my friends have applied for 50 jobs and are not even getting rejection letters. They are being ghosted, it is brutal.

“You work really hard for three years at university and survive the pandemic but what is it for if you can’t get work you want? It’s miserable and demoralising. I worry that by the time I qualify, I will get a job working from my bedroom again.”

‘I feel demoralised and disconnected’

Deepa Patel, 24, from Ilford, studied law at Aston University in Birmingham and graduated in the summer of 2020. Despite completing several internships, she does not have a full-time job after applying for more than 40 positions. She had to leave one social media marketing internship because they did not pay her and is currently on a course run by 2020 Change.

She said: “My job search has been disheartening. Because of Covid I couldn’t see friends for a lot of the time and I was stuck indoors. The application process is long-winded and getting the motivation to apply for jobs after being repeatedly rejected was hard. I have applied for around 40 jobs and have heard back from just a few. I would rather get an email rejecting me than hear nothing. It makes you feel demoralised and disconnected.”

‘There is no constructive criticism to help prepare for the next interview’

Hubert Mudzamiri, 23, from Chelmsford, studied architecture at Anglia Ruskin University and has applied for 40 jobs but secured only two interviews. He is originally from Zimbabwe and has the added pressure of a visa that relies on him securing a job within two years of graduating.

“Not getting feedback is the hardest part,” he said. “There is no constructive criticism or help to prepare for the next interview. My first year of university was normal, but in my second year we were told to go home because of Covid. It took a toll, especially on international students. I am carrying on with faith and a sense of hope. Each day the deadline for finding a job comes closer, but I try to stay hopeful.”

‘I turned to social media to find a job because traditional ways were not working’

Olivia Crowley, 22 from Romford, got a degree in creative media practice from Bath Spa University but was rejected from 30 jobs in marketing after she graduated in 2020. She set up her own social media company called Living Lavish Social and was approached by a skincare company and offered a full-time job as a digital marketing and social coordinator.

“I don’t think careers departments at universities are as equipped as they should be,” she said. “They didn’t teach us about social media and how to get a job that way. I got a lot of careers advice from Instagram accounts. There are a few people in their twenties who have created their own careers service and who review CVs.”

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