Article: Job-seeking graduates need not despair

My second article for The Guardian was based on something I’d read in that day’s paper saying that 70 applicants were vying for each graduate job.  Having been involved in the graduate recruitment process in 2005, where 3,000 applicants were said to have applied for 10 jobs in one company I’d successfully applied to, I wanted to share my experience and, hopefully, inspire others to keep plugging away.

You can find the original article by clicking here

When I told my parents that I’d decided to use part of my redundancy money from my private banking job to do a master’s while I looked for a job, the reaction was as I’d expected. “That’s fantastic!” they said, “now we can tell everyone how marketable you are!” I was a little confused as to why my parents – one a paramedic and the other a domestic engineer – were reacting like recruitment agents. A few weeks later, their excitement was understood. “I’ve had some offers for you” said my mum. Offers? What offers? Are you secretly a headhunter as well has being prolific at cooking the most amazing mousakka ever? “Some of my friends reckon they’ve got some pretty successful young women who might be interested in dating you.”

A master’s degree apparently makes one more attractive to the opposite sex (in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t. Epic dance moves do.) The academic rigour is irrelevant, nor is its potential to get you a job. Its bargaining power in the competitive world of arranged marriages is what gave it weight to my mother.

My first passion academically was always English. But, on the advice of my family and friends, I decided to read economics, finance and management because, ultimately, a job is the reward for a “good” degree and three years of debt accumulation. I was lucky – I got onto a graduate programme at a bank (and had offers from others) in 2005 – at one company, 3,000 applicants were vying for 10 jobs.

Today’s Guardian reports that there are 70 applicants for every graduate job and that “flipping burgers or stacking shelves” is a good way to gain work experience. While it is true that any employment, especially at a time like this, is good employment, I have issues with both the advice and the prevailing attitude to undergraduate studies.

In doing my master’s (in global governance and public policy), I’ve come to realise that higher academic study is just that – academic. On the whole, unless you’re studying the quintessential career-oriented subjects such as medicine, accountancy or law (although I know many lawyers who’ve embarked on different career paths, as well as a medic who dropped out to become a musician), studying at university is about understanding a subject at a higher academic level. It was never supposed to be a job centre. Even those studying finance find they need to do professional qualifications anyway, often repeating much of their undergraduate studies.

So reports such as this only serve to fuel the sense of injustice that graduates feel – and rightly so. On the whole, they’ve accumulated debt and made the investment with the expectation that a job would be there for them at the end. But we are where we are.

Employers don’t help much. They’ve set a seemingly arbitrary “measure of competence for employment” – a 2.1 degree and some relevant work experience – which has only created a mass of clones. All with 2.1 degrees, all did some work at the student union and maybe volunteered abroad. At this point, it’s down to luck. The ones like me who have less than a 2.1, especially at a time like this, may as well rule themselves out of ever getting a decent job – if you’re to believe what’s reported.

While I accept that times are tough, graduates do not have to resort to flipping burgers or stacking shelves, though there’s no shame in that – a job is a job. But, as I’ve told my brother (who turns 16 this September) and other recent graduates at programmes such as Fastlaners, its important that graduates are open to opportunities that may not seem like a direct link to what they want to do.

For example, the third sector will find it very hard at times of austerity to deliver services. You want to be an accountant? Offer to work for free at a local charity in their finance department. Want to work in the arts? Go to your local school and see if there are opportunities for you to help with drama productions. Networking is not about what they can do for you, but what you can do for them.

When I was made redundant, I was scared and 24 years old with plenty of non-student debt to worry about. Banking and finance was all I’d ever known since the age of 16, when I did work experience at a local high street branch. I took a look at my skill set and thought creatively about how this could be transferable, and ended up getting a job in policy – I swapped a job with numbers for a job with words (and lots of them).

Local authorities can help too. Where there is a gap in service provision, they should have strong links with their local partners to offer voluntary opportunities – everyone will need help to get their work delivered, especially with less money.

It is tough. It is unfair when all you’ve been expecting is a nice job after paying your way through university, while your pal who chose not to go to university is earning good money having worked his way up from the age of 18. There is always more than one way to get to a desired destination and sometimes, those different paths will open new destinations.