The graduate jobs front looks bleak for students graduating this year. Just-in-time recruitment, the fourth industrial revolution, digitisation, and AI are all coming to play during a global pandemic and economic recession.
Higher education needs to consider approaches better suited to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world that will characterise future graduate outcomes.
A new vision for the future should be as much about how universities equip graduates to rise to the challenge of being job makers as much as they are job takers.
Becoming start-up savvy
Less work on CVs and interview technique and more on commercial creativity, business planning, and financial awareness would be a good start. This would require a new breed of career advisors, possibly led by entrepreneurs for future entrepreneurs and championed by ambitious, creative, and hungry universities who care about their students’ prospects.
Lack of capacity and capability means traditional careers services are ill-equipped to provide advice or support about the growth in start-ups, franchise operations, and freelancing where self-motivated entrepreneurship is key.
The pandemic has fuelled global growth of entrepreneurship and start-up frenzy with Covid-19 bringing “a true boom in start-ups, as the number of new companies around the world has significantly surpassed the indicators of last year”. In the UK, the number of registered companies increased by 30 per cent year on year in November and December 2020 and start-ups have grown in the double-digit values since June 2020.
Responding to these employment dynamics requires a radical rethinking of the role of university careers departments and how graduates are prepared for employability.
Back in 2013, Andy Chan, VP for Innovation and Career Development at Wake Forest University, told a TEDx audience that, “career services must die” because it was not meeting the needs of students or society. At the ASU+GSV Summit in 2020, he commented that limited progress had been made but that the pandemic, increasing disillusionment with higher education, and the job market made change more mission critical for institutions than ever.
Demographic and economic shifts mean the emphasis should move from an impersonal emphasis on “career services” as a product to the notion of “life fulfilment support” as a dynamic interaction. Careers departments should stop posing as a shop where a student can get a job and be reborn as a creative source of advice, information, and networking that opens doors to potential futures for individuals to consider.
Building a generation of job-making graduates with the skills to innovate and build their own businesses would be a worthwhile ambition of this change.
This would also help dispel the sense of a factory line of graduate production that will not improve the UK’s globally competitive position post-Brexit. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has warned that graduate overqualification has reached “saturation point” and squeezes lower-qualified workers out of jobs and bemoans the crude approach that produces a “conveyor belt of graduates”.
Resolving the problem requires a re-skilling and re-envisioning of university services, making graduate employment mission critical and recognising that university awards are a starting point for life rather than an academic cul-de-sac.
It may be that the real solution to providing guidance and advice in these areas can only come from universities outsourcing many aspects of their current services related to supporting graduate outcomes.
Becoming an entrepreneur may not be the same as bottling lightning but it is an instinct that rarely thrives in the confines of an institutional setting. But there is nothing to prevent groups of universities coming together to establish shared services and hubs of excellence in advising and supporting their graduates on establishing new businesses, finding funding, and managing a basic profit-and-loss account.
But even in the old school game of careers fairs, CV workshops, mock interviews, and assessments, universities need to do much better in providing better data on growth areas and predictive information on employability.
With no information on specific institution’s graduate destinations forthcoming from HESA’s much maligned Graduate Outcomes, university careers services are well and truly in the dark when it comes to effectively supporting their students to find work. Robust graduate destinations data would make employer engagement and competitive positioning of graduates more practicable.
There is little doubt that Careers Information, Advice and Guidance (CIAG) departments have attempted to professionalise but the evidence is that investment in them remains pitifully short compared to the resources that go into student recruitment. It is a little like a relay team putting its very best runner to start off by recruiting students, having high-quality athletes delivering academic quality on the next two legs, but then failing to hone the performance of the anchor leg. Trailing in third after leading for most of the race is not a good look.
But the investment in the anchor leg is only worth it if there is a suitable level of drive and desire to be competitive and deliver results. Smart universities will know that their record on employability and their ability to help graduates consider the full range of career options will become an increasingly decisive factor in the choices made by potential students. Considering how to run the entire race at maximum effectiveness could be a game changer.
In 2020, at least 30 per cent of university students lost a job or an offer of a job after the sharpest monthly increase in unemployment on record. At the same time, competition for graduate jobs is at an all-time high: with graduate job openings falling by 77 per cent since the beginning of the year, there are on average 100 graduates vying for each role.
At least 20 per cent of Britain’s biggest employers have suspended their graduate recruitment selection processes and stopped making graduate job offers, and experts say the true scale of the damage inflicted on new graduates is yet to be fully realised.
The stakes are particularly high for universities because the accounting change for student loans made by the Office for National Statistics in 2018 added an immediate £12bn to the government deficit with the BBC commenting that this provided a “juicy carrot” to lower tuition fees.
By April 2021, the Guardian was reporting that the exposure to student loans was rising by £10bn a year, with loan write-offs and interest subsidies now more than 50p for every pound loaned. One vice-chancellor, in tones redolent of House Stark’s motto “winter is coming”, commented, “We know something is coming and that it’s going to be bad.”