Using non-financial data to find fulfilment in graduate outcomes

Tej Nathwani explains how the job design and nature of work variable can complement existing measures to enhance our understanding of how graduates are faring in the labour market.

Tej Nathwani is Principal Researcher at HESA

The ambition to ensure all graduates have fulfilling lives is one shared across the four nations of the UK.

With work being a central aspect of adulthood, this unsurprisingly leads to questions on how one achieves fulfilment through their employment.

The Fair Work Convention in Scotland states that:

Fulfilment as a dimension of fair work can be supported in a variety of ways: through forms of job design and work organisation that focus on effective skills use, autonomy and opportunities to problem solve and to make a difference, investment in training and development and cross learning.

Historically, there has been a lack of quantitative data available on the extent to which graduates secure fulfilling work based on such a definition as that above. However, our newly created ‘job design and nature of work’ measure seeks to plug this knowledge gap.

This has been formed using three questions in the Graduate Outcomes survey relating to the extent to which graduates believe their job is meaningful, uses their skills and is in line with their future plans (all aspects that lead to fulfilling work).

As I stated in my blog on this site last year, the next phase in our exploration of this measure was to seek answers to questions such as:

  • What can statistics on fair work tell us about inequalities in the graduate labour market that we don’t currently know?
  • What do they say about the quality of occupations on offer in different industries?

Today, we publish an infographic and working paper that begin to provide some insights into these matters.

Are ‘highly skilled’ jobs necessarily fulfilling?

The Office for National Statistics assigns jobs available in our economy into categories based on the skills needed and type of work/knowledge involved. Of the nine major groups they have identified, three are deemed to be ‘highly skilled’ (which are highlighted with the abbreviation “HS” in Figures 1 and 2). These roles are assumed to use the skills developed by graduates through their education and are most likely to align with their progression aspirations. Yet, does the data support this presumption?

Well, when looking at the association between the ‘job design and nature of work’ measure and occupation type, the three highest scores reported are all among those occupation groups classified as “highly skilled”.

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Figure 1 shows the association between occupation type and the ‘job design and nature of work’ measure among our graduate sample.

Bringing in qualification requirements

However, when one starts to dig deeper into the data, the pattern is less clear-cut. In the Graduate Outcomes survey, we ask respondents to indicate whether they required the qualification they were awarded to secure their job (or whether it was considered advantageous). From their point of view, around two-fifths of graduates in managerial roles believed that they didn’t need the qualification, while a sizeable fraction (around one-half) of those working in positions in skilled trades and caring, service and other leisure occupations deemed that they did.

As prior research has highlighted that, for UK graduates, skills use in a role tends to be greater in instances where the higher education qualification was seen as essential/valuable for the job, we explored the relationship between the ‘job design and nature of work’ measure and occupation type by qualification requirements. This shows that roles in managerial occupations where the qualification was not needed have lower ‘job design and nature of work’ scores than positions in caring, leisure and other service occupations, as well as skilled trades, in which the qualification was believed to be required or useful.

Given how the “job design and nature of work” variable is formed, that would suggest these managerial jobs do not use the skills of graduates and align with their aspirations to the same extent as some positions in skilled trades and caring, leisure and other service occupations.

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Figure 2 shows the association between occupation type and the ‘job design and nature of work’ composite measure among our graduate sample by whether or not the qualification was judged by graduates as being required or an advantage for the job.

Re-examining inequalities in the graduate labour market

As I noted in my November 2022 blog, there has been some recent research that illustrates that ethnic disparities in the labour market grow wider once non-pecuniary benefits are taken into consideration. A study using the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey (the predecessor to Graduate Outcomes) has shown that there are minimal differences in earnings by ethnicity once other factors are controlled for. When we carry out a similar investigation using the ‘job design and nature of work’ measure though, we find all ethnic minority groups report lower scores (even after accounting for personal, study and employment characteristics). So, while policy has tended to focus on financial disparities, investigating data such as the ‘job design and nature of work’ measure illustrates how employers/policymakers may also need to look at variations in non-monetary outcomes too if they want to make sure that all individuals benefit from fulfilling employment.

Student choice

I’ve spoken above about how the variable can be helpful to employers and policymakers, but prospective students may also find data on this matter to be valuable.

Students/graduates often inform us through surveys that better earnings are not their only reason for going into higher education and that they want careers where they can use their skills, progress and make a positive impact. That is, they too want fulfilling work. However, there is far less information available to them on the latter topics. The ‘job design and nature of work’ measure can assist with filling this void.

For example, while economists tend to be the highest earners (on average), Figure 3 illustrates that they do not rank as highly when it comes to their “job design and nature of work” scores. Indeed, different choices are likely to come with trade-offs. Some routes may lead to high-paying roles that don’t necessarily offer the graduate work that is as meaningful or uses their skills in the same way that another lower-paid profession may do. Yet, this insight only becomes clear through having a wider range of data on graduate outcomes.

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Figure 3 shows the association between subject area of study and the ‘job design and nature of work’ measure among our graduate sample.

Concluding thoughts

Both graduates and policymakers are in alignment that work needs to provide fulfilment. However, it cannot be assumed that a ‘highly skilled’ occupation necessarily offers a graduate meaningful employment that uses their skills and is in line with their career aspirations. Furthermore, as we indicate in Figure 4, higher earnings are not particularly well correlated with our ‘job design and nature of work’ measure. That is, monetary outcomes will not suitably proxy for whether graduates are in fulfilling work.

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Figure 4 shows the association between annual earnings and the ‘job design and nature of work’ measure among our graduate sample.

Consequently, the key take-away message from our exploration is that the ‘job design and nature of work’ measure can be a useful complement to existing data published on graduate outcomes and help us to better understand whether graduates are indeed finding fulfilment in the labour market.

The visualisations in this blog were produced by David Kernohan and derived from aggregated HESA data. Additional summary statistics from HESA on the ‘job design and nature of work’ measure can be found in the appendix of their paper.

Read HESA’s latest research publications and if you would like to be kept updated on the publication plans and latest research releases, please sign-up to our mailing list. To learn more about Graduate Outcomes, visit or view the latest national level official statistics.

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