Andrew Vine: Degree of despair as graduates fail to impress employers

THE boss of a North Yorkshire engineering company who I know well is currently ploughing through more than 200 emails in response to two vacancies he is trying to fill.

Should there be a closer correlation between degree courses and skills?

It’s a task that is starting to make him feel very sorry for scores of those who have submitted carefully-crafted CVs, because behind the lists of qualifications and work experience lie stories of young people whose hopes and dreams of good careers are in the process of being dashed.

That’s because the overwhelming majority of the applicants are recent graduates with no aptitude for either of the jobs he’s offering – an apprentice engineer and an office administrator.

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They are simply applying for every vacancy advertised by any company or organisation, irrespective of what it is, in the hope of getting something – anything – to start earning them a wage.

Saddled with debts of up to £30,000 after three years at university, it is coming as a nasty shock to find that there is a disconnect between what they have studied and the real world of making things that people need or providing services they require.

This is an issue that is still receiving far too little attention from the education system, and it comes even more sharply into focus because we’re in the middle of exam results season. Last week it was A-levels. On Thursday, it will be GCSEs.

But amid the elation of students – and relief of their parents – at getting good grades as a result of working hard, there remain flaws in a system that can too often be a conveyor belt towards disappointment.

The engineering company owner knows he will find exactly what he’s looking for amid all those emails – bright young people with suitable vocational qualifications.

But what happens to the rest, applying as much out of desperation as anything else?

For they surely must have reached a desperate pitch if he’s seeing application after application from graduates in various branches of the arts for a job training to be an engineer when absolutely nothing in their background, qualifications or hobbies listed on the CV indicates any aptitude or real interest in such a career.

Talk to most employers, whether large or small, and they have a similar tale to tell. A flood of applications for every vacancy. A bewildering range of degrees that seemingly have little or no relevance to the job advertised.

That isn’t to say the people applying would make anything except good and conscientious employees.

But it does pose serious questions for an education system seemingly fixated on propelling the maximum possible number of young people through university, whether or not that is either the best thing for them, or for the economy.

How are employers expected to make sense of so many of the qualifications they see on CVs? How to quantify their worth to the hard realities of running a business?

Some employers I know – especially smaller, independently-run enterprises – rely on their instincts when interviewing candidates and deciding if they will fit in or have potential. The degrees they have indicate little more than a certain level of intelligence, and beyond that don’t count for much.

This also poses questions for parents supporting and sympathising as sons and daughters sweat and worry their way through GCSEs and A-levels. Is the goal of getting a university place the right one to be aiming for?

University has become the automatic route for children even of modest academic ability, yet for some that aim may be hampering their life chances by obscuring other directions into rewarding careers.

The familiar claim that graduates earn more over their lifetime than non-graduates must ring pretty hollow for those who will be receiving polite emails of rejection from the engineering firm.

The growing acknowledgement that university isn’t necessarily the right course has been shown by the increasing number of companies recruiting school-leavers and training them for a profession whilst they earn a wage instead of accumulating debt.

Children taking exams, and their parents, need to be made more aware of the options. Schools need to bring them together with employers to talk about careers and the way into them, shifting the default position from aiming at three years away at university and then worrying about getting a job.

And there is another source of advice that should be tapped into. It is former pupils who have faced an uphill struggle to find work after graduating, and have possibly ended up in jobs that bear no relation to what they studied. This is an uncomfortable reality, and needs to be acknowledged.

Doing so isn’t about putting a dampener on the hopes and dreams of students doing their utmost to get good grades in their exams. It’s about helping them come to terms with the realities they face in the years ahead, and having the best chance of making their dreams come true.