Covid-19 has had a transformative effect on many areas of our life, and those in higher education are well aware that the consequences of the pandemic have fallen heavily on young people.
In particular, the traditional pathways from education into the jobs market have been significantly disrupted. Youth unemployment rose faster between spring and autumn 2020 than at any point since the 2008 financial crisis and last year’s graduating cohort entered an exceptionally tough labour market – indeed, arguably the only thing worse than graduating with a degree last year was leaving education without one.
There are strong signs that the jobs market this summer is set to be much better but we have to stress that despite excitable talk of labour shortages, the jobs market might have improved but for young people it is still just getting back to normal rather than romping ahead. It will take some time – The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) says until the end of 2023 – for the UK labour market to return to a pre-pandemic situation.
With these factors in mind, and with the ongoing debate about the future of work in full flow, Prospects surveyed students about their preparedness for employment and their ability to secure work experience. Prospects Early Careers Survey 2021 asked how prepared students were for getting a job or apprenticeship. Nearly half (45 per cent) of university students said they felt unprepared – more so than college/sixth form students (36 per cent).
The majority of respondents said they faced barriers when looking for jobs or apprenticeships. University students said that having the required work experience was their biggest barrier, followed by a lack of opportunities to apply for and having the necessary skills.
Prospects’ recent internship report showed that just 17 per cent of students had undertaken work experience over the past year. Similarly, the Institute of Student Employers reported that employers recruited 29 per cent fewer interns and 25 per cent fewer placement students.
These findings speak to a particular issue in the current graduate jobs market. Students and graduates value work experience, and know employers value it, but have found it very difficult to access.
I have spoken to students at many virtual events over the past few months, and work experience, and how to compensate for not having been able to access it, is one of the two questions I am guaranteed to be asked first (prospects for international students is the other).
Many recruiters continue to ask for work experience even though they themselves do not offer it or have cut their programmes during the pandemic.
The issue of recruiters who don’t offer work experience nevertheless expecting it has been rumbling on for some years now but has really come to a head this year. The advice is simple – if you don’t offer some form of work experience, don’t expect your new recruits to come fully formed with a relevant work history already on their CVs.
Some businesses are offering work experience for students, however, it is still likely to be face-to-face and unpaid.
We’ve heard of London-based businesses making great play of the fact that they’re still offering in-office work experience. Of course these roles are open to anyone who is able to afford to commute into London five days a week during a pandemic that has affected the jobs students take during term-time and holidays to pay their way.
It does not take a labour market specialist to realise that a business offering experience on those terms is effectively limiting that experience to a relatively small pool of prospective employees.
So what are the solutions to these thorny questions?
Business can start recognising that the Covid Generation of students come with a unique set of experiences.
Business is collectively still getting to grips with big questions about how to support a hybrid workforce (hybrid working is going to be a feature of employment in the future, especially for graduates). How do we avoid burnout? How do we make sure our peers, colleagues and employees are coping? How do we help if they are not?
Our students have been living those questions as well and their insight on some of these big business questions may be just as valuable as a few weeks work experience.
Virtual or hybrid work experience may be more difficult to offer and assess but the reality is that for many students, it will replicate their likely employment experience, and is more equitable in terms of access. Let’s explore and work together to offer better ways to facilitate hybrid work experience.
And finally, if you don’t offer work experience to students, don’t expect your new recruits to have it. It’s only fair – and in a more competitive 2021 graduate jobs market, being smart about requirements might mean the difference between a successful recruitment and a failed one.