I doubt that any child, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, says “in graduate-level employment.” Nobody just wants “a job” – we all want work that gives us a sense of purpose, and a professional community within which we can develop.
But understanding patterns of progression into graduate-level employment – and other graduate outcome indicators such as job satisfaction – can shed light on inequities in the system. And right now, whether you find that place of professional belonging can be unfairly influenced by your family background.
Though we shouldn’t assume that relative privilege automatically comes with healthy self-confidence and established networks, the link between socio-economic background and professional employment is well-established. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of longitudinal educational outcomes (LEO) data controls for socio-economic background.
Now the Office for Students is proposing that, rather than assuming that the link holds true no matter what universities do, universities should strive to break it. In the recent consultation on regulating quality and standards in English higher education OfS has indicated that it intends to set baseline thresholds for students progressing into professional employment.
Historically universities have been assessed against benchmarked data that has taken into account employment outcomes gaps for those from less advantaged backgrounds; under OfS’ plans this will no longer be the case. And while the policy applies only to English universities, it can’t fail to have ramifications across the devolved nations.
All this brings the question of equity in student employment outcomes sharply into focus – and a fresh imperative to understand and overcome the barriers less advantaged students face in trying to enter an industry or professional area.
A school of hard knocks
No matter how impressive a graduate’s skills and academic accomplishments, finding a fulfilling professional role is grounded in building relationships and networks – in human connections, not just faceless CVs.
If a student is not networked into the industry or professional area they are interested in they face a triple disenfranchisement.
They won’t have absorbed the secret codes and behaviours that let people in their industry know they’ll be a good fit.
They won’t have the insider knowledge of the sorts of organisations they might work in, or the cultures that predominate, that might help them decide where they sit, or if that world is even one that they can flourish in.
And they won’t have the champions or mentors who can advocate for them from within the industry or refer them to possible vacancies.
All this can have a serious impact on confidence, and lead to graduates ending up in roles that are not a good fit for them. A 2018 Prince’s Trust report found 56 per cent of 18-25 year olds report that lack of self-confidence holds them back in their career.
Though work is under way to achieve greater equity in access to established professions with well-trodden entry routes such as graduate training schemes, many professions and industries, especially emerging industries, do not have clear-cut pathways that are subject to that kind of intervention. A systemic approach is needed to achieve the kind of levelling up of opportunity at scale that is required.
Students are not the only ones facing barriers. Employers seeking to diversify their graduate recruitment pool also have challenges with promoting opportunities widely. They might have to deal with different systems at multiple universities and go through different approvals processes all with similar criteria.
There is a question of return on investment – while it’s worth investing to get the right hire, there’s only so much employers can justify spending, and the result can be that employers target known institutions, even if widening their search might generate better results. A 2020 report for High Fliers on the graduate labour market found that on average employers only targeted 24 universities for recruiting graduates.
Those with bigger marketing budgets can afford to reach out further. Smaller employers cannot afford to invest in sophisticated digital systems such as applicant tracking systems, or email marketing tools. And they’re much less likely to get value from attending a careers fair, because they have much lower brand recognition than the big name employers.
Handshake investigated 15m employer approvals and found that small and medium enterprises can wait on average twice as long for approval by universities – possibly because they are more likely to be in emerging industries, or possibly because they have fewer resources to invest in recruitment best practice. This can mean hard-pressed careers staff often play the role of external consultant, advising on attraction and selection strategies as well as basic legislation.
Technology can help
Digital technology has a levelling effect. While people still value building relationships through making face to face connections, it’s easier to initiate connections digitally and build from there when you’re trying to diversify your network.
This can be especially true for students who need their confidence building. University career services offer a wide range of opportunities for students to build connections and confidence, such as one to one career coaching, mentoring and alumni networking events.
Unfortunately, these are often challenging to deliver at scale and Handshake data suggests that less than 50 per cent of students will engage with this type of intervention. Careers fairs can be great for extroverted students, but they can alienate those with less experience, not to mention the expense and environmental impact.
We should not assume this is due to a lack of ambition – caring responsibilities, paid work, and study commitments can easily take priority over long term career planning. Online engagement is psychologically safe, it’s flexible, and you can retain control of the scale of your interactions – three things that are highly valued by young graduates.
Web 1.0 made it easier to publicise information about careers and job opportunities for those who were actively seeking it. Handshake’s data suggests that on average 50 per cent of students who interact with a career service’s resources do so exclusively via a digital platform. But web 2.0 – the social web – is driving a new wave of education and recruitment technology focused on connections. And access to, and familiarity with, these technologies is not equal.
Breaking down the barriers
At Handshake, we’ve focused exclusively on addressing the barriers to connection in the “early talent” labour market though understanding the human experience of transitioning from student to graduate and aspiring professional, on both sides of the graduate-employer relationship.
For example, most professional networking platforms have a messaging facility – but the reality is that these systems are designed for established professionals, not early talent. Many students may struggle with identifying who is best to contact in the first place, and on being presented with a blank box won’t know what to say. This reduces the likelihood that the message they send produces a response – with the result being instant discouragement.
With Handshake, peer to peer messaging enables students to discover other students or early alumni like them and easily reach out to connect for information and advice. When students click a message, they can select from templates to help them understand messaging etiquette, which enables them to get started on creating connections. And for those whose confidence is not developed, a direct message from an alumnus or employer can provide an enormous morale boost.
Rather than focusing attention on the “occasion” of a careers fair, with limited interaction up to and following the event, the Handshake platform allows students to follow and find out more about employers, and employers to connect with prospective hires in anticipation of making a deeper connection at a careers fair. Employers can then follow up with an invitation to apply for vacancies.
We’ve had success with virtual careers fairs as well, where employers can set up one to one video conversations with interested students. And with a virtual careers fair you can track interactions and outcomes – that’s how we know that students on Handshake who attend a virtual careers fair and receive a follow up from an employer apply for jobs at a rate 1.5 times higher than students active on Handshake who don’t.
You can’t design unfairness out of social systems entirely – but you can invest in understanding the reasons why existing ways of doing things produce inequitable outcomes. It is possible to make progress towards levelling the playing field for early talent – and students, employers, and universities too, could all gain from doing so.
This article is published in association with Handshake. To download Handshake’s executive report on how technology can facilitate early career connections at scale click here.