More than a third of graduates from undergraduate programmes working in “high skilled” roles are paid less than £24,000 a year, 15 months after graduation . What is going on?
The overwhelming majority of these graduates (even 72 per cent of those 2,080 graduates in high skilled roles earning less than £15,000 a year) agree that they are using the skills they have learned during their course.
It is possible that the 11 per cent of graduates in part-time employment, and the 10 per cent in employment and further study may be represented here, but because we are looking only at graduates reporting that “paid employment is [their] most important activity” we should be filtering a lot of these cases out. We need hardly add that salary is also affected by the region in which a graduate is working, prior attainment, and sex.
What is skill?
It’s worth reminding ourselves what “highly skilled” actually means. As I explained here, the Office for National Statistics maintains an exhaustive list of jobs and job attributes called the Standard Occupational Classifications (SOCs) – Graduate Outcomes coded to the 2010 release of this dataset. You can search for any job of interest using this handy look-up – I searched for “Fireplace Salesperson” and the closest I got was “Sales and Retail Assistant”. Right at the bottom of that screen I saw it was coded to Major Group 7 “Sales and Customer Service”, which is in the low skilled group.
Of course, there is a small but strong history of graduates initially taking “non-graduate” roles either to earn money to live or to gain experience.
So how does this tie in with the larger concept of a “graduate job”? In a speech to the Social Market Foundation, Gavin Williamson cited a specific piece of research to make the point that around a third of graduates are reckoned to be “underemployed”. It was back in 2014 that Green and Henske used the concept of skills density to identify new graduate jobs that have emerged between 2006 and 2012. These included air traffic controllers – currently the best paid non-managerial role in the UK – and, authors/writers. They reported “sales and retail assistants” as non-graduate roles in which graduates were more likely to work during this period. “National government administrative occupations” is up there too. “Graduate jobs” is not a static category, it shifts and will continue to shift over time.
All this is based on an understanding of a role’s “skills density”. These skills density reports in Green and Henske come from the old fashioned approach of interviewing people and asking them about their jobs.In this case, a “survey of adult skills” conducted by the OECD, which is more usually used to look at the skills-led (or otherwise) nature of a national economy. This is a similar, but not identical, methodology (asking people who do the jobs in question) to that used to classify the UK government’s SOC codes.
But fundamentally the nub of the paper is at odds with Williamson’s characterisation. Over the period of study (this is a six year old paper looking at data from around a decade ago, remember) the number of graduate jobs available grew from 32 per cent to 40 per cent. Despite a growth in the number of graduates, the number in jobs that were then classified as “non-graduates” remained stable throughout this period at around 30 per cent. To be clear on that:
“In particular the massive influx of graduates into the labour force in the age bracket 25 – 39 years has been absorbed, with no increase in overeducation.”
More damningly for Williamson’s overarching point about the value of higher education not always offering value, the paper concludes that:
“overeducated graduates receive on average lower wages compared with matched graduates, but higher wages than workers with an adequate level of education. Further, undereducated non-graduates receive higher pay than matched non-graduates, but less than matched graduates”
So even if a graduate ends up doing a non-graduate job, they would still be paid more than a non-graduate. (I don’t like the terms overeducated and undereducated, but I guess 2014 was a different time)
The debate is riven with issues like this. Skill level and salary don’t correlate as well as we may think, there’s no link between intake qualifications to a particular course and employment outcomes from that course, a “graduate job” is not a static concept, and there’s no evidence that graduates are any more “underemployed” than when the number of graduates was much smaller.
It’s a shame, as the point on which nearly everyone agreed – intermediate and higher level technical qualifications need more attention and more respect, and HE, FE, and other types of adult learning have a role to play in offering them – is blunted by attempts to build a false binary. We need qualifications and experiences that can prepare people for short-term job needs, but we also need to invest in long term skills.