Graduate recruitment – short-term setbacks or long-term scars?

What's the market looking like for graduate jobs? Gabi Binnie gets across the numbers.

Gabi is Policy and Research Manager at AGCAS.

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has affected recent graduates’ experiences of finishing their university degree and entering the next stage of their lives and, for many, their careers.

But new research from the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) and the University of Southampton explores whether the immediate difficulties faced by the class of 2020 transform into long-term scars.

Exactly a year ago AGCAS and the University of Southampton sought funding from the Economic and Social Research Council to embark on a longitudinal study into the experiences and employment outcomes of graduates entering, or re-entering in some cases, the labour market in 2020 – the first output of which is released today. The first report is based on a survey of over 3000 recent graduates and in-depth interviews with 56 graduates from 22 different UK higher education institutions (HEIs).

Immediate effects

At first glance, the employment outcomes of the recent graduates surveyed were not as bad as may have been expected, given some of the headlines – something that also appears reflected in the Graduate Outcomes summary data. It will only be once we have the Year 3 Graduate Outcomes data that we’ll truly understand the impact of the pandemic, but our data (collected between six and nine months post-graduation for most of the sample) found that 63.7% were in some form of employment at the time of the survey (December 2020 – March 2021) and a further 11.1% were undertaking either full time or part time further study.

But these findings don’t necessarily paint a true picture of recent graduates’ experiences. Whilst 44% of graduates surveyed were in full time employment at the point of the survey, it is unclear from the survey data how many of these are employed in graduate-level roles or jobs that they find personally fulfilling or that aligns with their career aspirations.

The majority of graduates – even those who have recorded a “positive” outcome, such as full time employment of further study – feel that the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on graduates’ employment prospects, have been made to think differently about their future, have become less confident about their future employment prospects and believe the pandemic has significantly damaged their job prospects.

Over half of graduates have experienced being unemployed for longer than two weeks since March 2020 or been employed in a job that did not draw on their graduate qualifications or skills, which has impacted their wellbeing and confidence and made many question the value of their degree.

Different experiences

Whilst graduates have found transitioning into the labour market challenging, there are significant differences in experiences between graduates. For example, the average number of job applications made by graduates since March 2020 was 37, but this masks huge differences in the experiences of the 608 graduates who have made 1-5 graduate job applications since March 2020 and the seven graduates that have made between 500 and 1000 graduate job applications.

Through interviews with graduates, we captured four different transitional experiences into the labour market – disoriented, indeterminate, emerging and integrating. At the two extreme ends of the scale, “disoriented graduates” are those struggling the most to gain any foothold in the graduate labour market and indicate initial scarring around confidence, motivation, identity and challenges to their resilience. Whereas “integrating” graduates were already gaining momentum in their career after experiencing relatively smooth transitions into the labour market and had not, as yet, been hurt by the tough economic climate.

Bearing the brunt

It was clear, even very early into the pandemic that people aged 18-24, those from an ethnic minority group, women, young workers and disabled workers would shoulder more of the weight of the economic challenges caused by Covid-19. This is something we have seen in our data.

Male graduates are more likely to be employed on a full time basis than women and graduates who identify as non-binary though, interestingly, male graduates are more likely to unemployed whilst female graduates are more likely to be employed on part time or voluntary bases. Similarly, disabled graduates are less likely to be employed on a full time basis and more likely to be in other patterns of employment or unemployed than those without disabilities.

White British graduates are the least likely to be unemployed whilst Arab graduates are most likely to be unemployed and Black British graduates are the least likely to be in full time employment. However, Black, African and Caribbean graduates are the most likely to be in any type of employment including full time employment.

Regeneration and remodelling

What we often forget – and as Biomedical Science graduate I’m guilty as charged – is that, though painful, scarring is the body’s natural healing process after being damaged. Interestingly, over a third of graduates who had experienced a negative employment outcome, such as being unemployed for at least two weeks, being employed in a non-graduate level job, being furloughed or made redundant, felt that their experience had given them a chance to gain experience and new skills. A further third said their experiences had felt like a necessary step to future employment whilst 60% said that their experiences had given them the opportunity to reflect on what they want from their career.

Prevention is better than cure

Our research shows that some graduates are displaying early scarring effects, but it isn’t too late for remedial action and policy interventions to be put in place to prevent further damage. We make several recommendations in the report to HEIs, employers and policy makers, including that funding should be provided to UK regions to allow HEIs to collaboratively create programmes that directly support regional SMEs, and for research to understand how personal characteristics influence the transition into the labour market.

However, prevention is better than cure. We hope this research, due to be concluded in autumn 2021, will provide evidence for how economic shocks are felt by recent graduates. We hope to build on the knowledge we’ve gained to create resources that higher education professionals can use to support their class of 2020 and those due to graduate in 2021 and beyond.

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