Resilience in adversity: supporting graduate careers during Covid-19

The graduating class of 2020 is facing a global depression as a result of Covid-19, with jobs in short supply. Gabi Binnie thinks through how careers services can lend support.

In the chaos of the global pandemic, universities are facing unprecedented student recruitment challenges, as well as having to fundamentally change how they teach, assess and support current students. With a global recession almost certainly looming, it is perhaps those students due to graduate in just a few months that face the greatest trials.

We are already seeing a 17 per cent fall in job postings which is disproportionately affecting young earners. Across the board there is evidence that the young are breaking the brunt of the Covid-19 recession. Research by the Institute of Student Employers showed around a quarter of employers expect to recruit fewer graduates, and 31 per cent expect to recruit fewer interns and placement students because of the impact of the virus.

A reduction in the number of graduate jobs available will almost certainly disproportionately affect widening participation students, especially if, as research by the Bridge Group for UPP suggests, employers place greater emphasis on pre-university qualifications or participation in internships, sports or societies in the light of disruption to final exams.

Not all doom and gloom?

If predicted government measures intended to encourage business investment and stimulate consumer spending lead to a national economic bounceback later in the year, then we may expect that graduate recruitment will follow a similar pattern seen after the 2008 financial crash, where the graduate labour market certainly suffered, but, as Charlie Ball at Prospects has argued, not as much as worst case scenarios predicted.

In the aftermath of the previous recession, very few employers closed their graduate schemes and as a result the graduate labour market recovered fairly well. While we saw the number of large graduate schemes decrease, there was still a graduate labour market as graduates found new and alternative graduate level employment, predominantly through a growth in SME recruitment.

However, current analysis suggests that 34% of graduates were employed by a company that had fewer than 250 employees, companies likely to suffer more starkly because of the crisis. While empirical evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on SMEs is limited (though AGCAS intends to explore this further with our member services), in one survey reported in the Guardian, one in five firms ranked the threat to their organisation from the coronavirus as “high” or ‘“severe” and in another one-third of SMEs fear that without support, their business would not survive until Easter. If SMEs are disproportionately affected, this will have a knock-on effect on the vitality of regions of the UK where SMEs are more strongly represented in the business landscape and subsequently the graduate labour market in that region.

City regions facing lengthy recovery periods will be looking for civic support from university partners in getting back on their feet. Careers services are already working collaboratively to support regional graduate labour markets – our members recently produced a labour market overview of Scotland and AGCAS’s Regionalisation Working Party is collating and disseminating regional LMI datasets – but more of this needs to happen so that institutions can take a coherent offer to their local authority once recovery phase begins. In the initial response to the crisis, there is a risk that graduates, high-skilled workers and graduate entrepreneurs are not the priority for remedial action. Universities need to work with their local authorities to ensure that the graduate labour market is considered in any economic initiatives or support packages.

Still open for business

Even where employers are continuing with their recruitment of students and graduates, their recruitment processes have been severely disrupted, with selection activities, careers fairs, internships and, in many cases, the onboarding of new student hires moving online. Careers services around the UK are proactively contacting their employer partners to understand how they are adapting their processes and using this knowledge to support students accordingly, in addition to rapidly moving entire teams from campus-based to remote. Careers services are using the crisis as an opportunity to take their online delivery to the next level through increased use of vlogs, podcasts, online chats, and Instagram or Facebook-live streams.

As well as taking their services online, university careers services are creating new content to reflect the experiences of their students during the crisis. Virtual workshops to help students understand how to adapt their career plans as a result of Covid-19 and the possible impact on their mental health, Special Recognition awards to recognise skills demonstrated through student volunteering during the crisis and virtual internships have been developed in response. Whilst careers services had already seen the benefits of virtual delivery before the crisis, the need to respond rapidly has catalysed the development of increasingly innovative solutions and shown how indispensable technology in the delivery of services to students long after they have left campus.

One concern for careers services is that not all students are equally able to access their support. Though universities appreciate that careers and employability are crucial to the student experience, careers professionals may not be included in institutional conversations about technology and inclusivity in the same way as teaching staff. Careers professionals have adapted swiftly to new circumstances but across the sector, concerns have been raised about the technical and ethical debt of technology and there is recognition that we need to keep asking ourselves whether any of our students are unintentionally being left behind.

Stronger as a result

There is no doubt that this generation of students are facing unprecedented upheaval, particularly those who have left their degree early to join the frontline response or dealt with industrial action on top of the current crisis. Much has been made of universities transitioning their degree programmes and assessments online however, it is equally clear that careers services are conscious of the challenges ahead and are already working as a community to disseminate learning from the previous recession and share best practice on how to help students manage careers disruption.

We know that there will be fewer graduate jobs and encouraging graduates to consider non-linear opportunities will be more important than ever. Resilience will be the key, and this is a characteristic that we expect students and graduates of this generation to have developed in spades, and it is such resilience and determination, which will ensure the UK economy is positioned to recuperate over the coming years. We did it back in 2008 and we will do it again.

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