Hard lessons in reality for the students struggling to pass the employment test

Keren Hardgrave of Hemsworth
Keren Hardgrave of Hemsworth
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A new survey of Yorkshire graduates highlights the challenges that many of our brightest talents have finding a decent job. Chris Bond reports.

THERE was a time when a university degree, no matter what the subject, was the passport to a long and successful career.

How the young men and women attending graduation ceremonies later this summer must look back on such days with longing and envy. For the only guarantee most of today’s students can expect when they leave university is that their bank balance will show a minus sign followed by a dauntingly large number.

It’s a sobering reminder not only of the growing cost of going to university, but the uncertainty of finding a decent job afterwards. This week Graduates Yorkshire, a social enterprise organisation that connects graduates and businesses, published a new study showing what graduates think about the job market in our region.

More than 3,800 Yorkshire-based graduates took part in the Big Grad Survey, with 61 per cent saying they were in full time employment. On the face of it this doesn’t sound too bad, but at the same time 53 per cent of those questioned said they didn’t have graduate level jobs. Martin Edmondson, chief executive of Graduates Yorkshire, says this “underemployment” of graduates is a serious concern. “There aren’t enough graduates in graduate level jobs across the country, which means too many aren’t reaching their potential.”

This has a damaging knock-on effect. “We have around one million young people unemployed and part of the reason for this is graduates are taking the jobs that young people straight out of school would normally take, like bar work, and this, in turn, means we have a bigger benefits bill,” he says.

“Graduates have always taken entry level jobs, but whereas in the past the lag time between them finding graduate level work was six months or a year, now it’s longer.”

The recession has clearly had an impact on the job market. In 2008, there was a 20 per cent drop in graduate jobs and although that figure has been creeping slowly back up in the past couple of years we still aren’t at the levels of four years ago. The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that last year saw the highest ever number of graduates in the UK.

Another issue highlighted by the study is the lack of internships. These are the graduate equivalent of apprenticeship schemes and Edmondson says they have a proven track record of getting graduates into suitable work. “They give employers the chance to have graduates working for them for a few months and it gives graduates the experience they need,” he says.

“Around 85 per cent of graduates that went on internships we ran between 2008 and 2010 went on to get permanent jobs. But this government has stopped funding for internships and they have largely disappeared apart from the odd one run by some universities and businesses, so we need to look at how we can increase the number of internships.”

Between 55 and 70 per cent of students who graduate from Yorkshire universities remain in the region afterwards and Edmondson says we need to get the best out of them. “Where there are more graduates doing graduate level work there is an uplift in productivity and the GDP of a local area. There’s no shortage of graduates who want to work here, the challenge is how do we use this talent and how do we get them maximising their potential? That should be a big priority.”

Keren Hardgrave is studying business management at Leeds Met. She’s on course to get a first class honours degree when she finishes this month and has been offered a marketing job in Barnsley which she starts shortly.

“I live with my partner who runs a car care company, we have a mortgage and he’s been supporting me for the last three years, so it was important that I got a job,” she says.

“I started looking last year because I know there’s a lot of stiff competition from other graduates.”

Keren went to job fairs to pick up tips and spoke to recruitment agencies to get advice on how to improve her chances of finding the right job. “They encouraged me to get involved with LinkedIn and write a blog, these might seem small things but they can make a difference because I got my job through LinkedIn.”

The 24 year-old, from Pontefract, agrees that it’s not easy for graduates but says there are opportunities if they are prepared to look for them. “There’s a lot of pressure on graduates because it’s a tough market. Before I got this job I’d applied for a few graduate schemes and they are difficult to get on to and the whole process can be very time consuming, but the key thing is to start looking for work before you graduate.”

Getting relevant work experience is equally important. “I’ve worked for a beauty company for free for the last two years. They were just starting up and I worked on the social media and marketing side of things.

“I had to fit it in around my studies but it gave me the experience I needed. The recruitment agencies I spoke to all said it was having work experience that got me a job, without that I would have really struggled.”

Keren feels some graduates could do more. “I made sure that my CV was seen online by recruiters when they were looking to take people on because you have to put yourself out there. I think some people still think jobs will come to them. But you need to know what kind of job you want because everybody has a degree and it’s not enough any more.

It’s an employer’s market and quite a few big employers now require a minimum 2:1 degree, so you need something that makes you stand out.”

However, some graduates struggle to land the job they want. Carl Price left school in 1981, but having returned to college to do his A-levels he finally completed his Open University degree in politics and social sciences in 2010.

The 47 year-old, who lives in Sheffield, was offered the chance to study law at Sheffield University during the mid-90s but couldn’t find a sponsor and with a young family to support didn’t want to be left saddled with debt. “I thought all hope was lost but then I saw an advert for the Open University in a local library and I enrolled on a course,” he explains.

He hoped his degree would help get him a job as a policy adviser in local politics, or perhaps with an NGO (non-governmental organization), but despite applying for more than 100 jobs over the past 18 months he is still looking for work.

“I’ve got a lot of life and work experience and I’ve had jobs where I’ve managed people and although I didn’t think I would walk into a job I thought I’d be able to start a new career, but that’s not been the case.”

Finding a job in politics has proved harder than he’d imagined. Most internships are based down in London and he wasn’t prepared to up sticks with his family and move to the capital.

“I know you have to be flexible and I’d work anywhere in a 60-mile radius of Sheffield, but it seems there just aren’t the jobs around here that I’m looking for.”

Having battled for so long to try and give himself a fresh start, he finds it frustrating. “It’s a tough time not just for mature graduates like me, but younger ones too. I left school during a recession and when I graduated there was a recession on.”

Despite this, he continues the daily rigmarole of trying to find work. “I spend about two hours every day checking job websites, it’s become a part-time occupation applying for jobs. I tick all the boxes and it does get you down at times because you think ‘is it my age?’ But there are a lot of others out there like me who have plenty to offer, you just have to keep plugging away and hope that it works out.”

What the graduates say

Nearly 4,000 Yorkshire graduates took part in the Big Grad Survey.

61 per cent of those questioned said they are in full-time paid employment.

53 per cent said they didn’t have graduate level positions.

More than half said they are making use of the skills they learnt on their courses in their jobs.

40 per cent of respondents said they thought job opportunities in Yorkshire were poor.

The survey showed that the majority of respondents were paid less than £25,000, with a third paid less than £15,000.

Despite the difficulties, 67 per cent of Yorkshire’s graduates said they would still recommend going to university.