Are around half of graduates really not in graduate jobs?

David Kernohan reads the latest IFS research on place, careers, and qualifications

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Graduates are more likely to work in graduate jobs in London than they are in any other part of the UK.

In places like Cumbria and Lincolnshire, according to a new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ (IFS) Xiaowei Xu, more than half of university-educated workers work in non-graduate jobs.

The first of these findings will be unlikely to come as much of a shock – as Xu herself puts it “The rise in high-skilled professional services jobs in the last 30 years has been very much focused on London, which means that graduates from other places need to move to reap the returns to their education”.

Who are graduates?

As a group, graduates are demographically distinct. As we know from recruitment and completion data they are more likely to be from advantaged family backgrounds. From participation data, especially on rates of expansion, we are also aware that they are more likely to be young.

To be precise, according to the 2021 Census 47 per cent of the population between 25 and 34 are graduates, 44 per cent of the population between 35 and 49 are graduates, but just 31 per cent of those between 50 and 64 are graduates.

The other thing we know about young people – and sorry if this sounds obvious, but it is important – is that they are going to be at an earlier stage of their career. Very few graduates walk directly into a well-paid, “professional” role, and this will have an impact on their pay and the skill level of the job they are in.

What are graduate jobs?

As regular readers will be aware, the idea of a graduate job is an inconsistent and contested one. Again to break it down as simply as I can:

  • Some jobs require a degree (or a registered status that requires a degree or a degree level qualification) for entry.
  • For some jobs most of the people that do them have a degree, even though it is not strictly speaking a requirement for the role.
  • Some jobs are new or emerging roles or in new or emerging fields – it is not yet clear whether or not they will enter one of the other two categories over time.
  • Some jobs are split into levels – at one level the role is usually done by a graduate, at other levels it is usually done by someone without.
  • Some jobs have not historically been graduate jobs, but changes to employer or professional body requirements, changes to the skills required by the job itself, or the availability of new vocationally-focused higher education qualifications mean that they are becoming graduate jobs

Depending on the methodology used, some or all of these categories may be included in any given definition of a “graduate job”. For example the Office for Students “highly skilled” indicator is a very blunt instrument – just taking the top three Standard Occupational Coding (SOC2020) categories as skilled and disregarding anything else. There are more subtle approaches within SOC itself that still leave us with glaring anomalies, and there is work underway at ONS and DfE to come up with better definitions.

What IFS has done is a little more left-field. Back in 2015 the long since superseded Annex J of the government’s immigration codes of practice mapped a bunch of SOC job descriptions to the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) owned by Ofqual, and to then-contemporary salary data. This was developed to support employers in understanding which roles could be filled by migrants, and which could not.

The research out today uses that same mapping as a basis for identifying graduate (level 4+) jobs – even though it is nominally based on SOC2010 data that was being gathered in the mid 2000s (and you don’t have to scratch too deep to note that this was just ported across from SOC2000 coding), and you will look in vain for any methodology for the mapping to the qualifications framework.

At a broad level if a graduate is doing a job it is a “graduate job” – for me the finesse should be whether the graduate is doing a job they want to do based on the skills they have gathered (and I properly love the HESA/Tej Nathwani “quality of work” research for this very reason).

IFS research meets reality

As a nation we are no stranger to arguments that around half of all graduates are in “non-graduate jobs”. It’s a debating technique used to attempt to advance the wider argument that we have too many graduates now that international comparators and labour market intelligence are pointing resolutely in the other direction.

IFS is right to note the skills drain leading to London, and the hollowing out of the middle band of employment – these are both established trends, and represent a significant employer impact on the plight of communities in unfashionable places. It is, in fact, arguable that the “high-skilled” workforce is a national rather than a local phenomenon.

And I’m a fan too, of the conclusion that graduates who are unable for family or financial reasons to move to London are missing out on well paid skilled work, without the former compensation of the higher tier of non-graduate jobs to move into. And Xu is right to note the increasing segregation of low-skilled service work into specialised agencies as a constraint on career progression between the two. It is, however, the headline findings that will get the column inches.

Factor in the globalisation of freelance creative and research work, and the increasingly apocalyptic predictions about the displacement of these formally “skilled” roles by generative large language model AI and it is easy to feel quite bleak about the whole thing.

But as the world of work changes, our definitions of graduate success need to change too. There are new kinds of jobs, new modes of working (including the massive and sustained growth of remote work in knowledge-intensive industries), and our definitions and data need to keep pace. Alas, good research done with decades-old coding frameworks isn’t going to cut it any more.

2 responses to “Are around half of graduates really not in graduate jobs?

  1. There does appear to be a lack of longitudinal studies into the career paths of graduates in terms of different occupations and job roles as well as salaries and working hours. These would be far more useful in informing government policy than snapshot analysis that draws conclusions on value-for-money based only on outcomes at a point in time within five years of graduating

  2. I wonder how the move to hybrid working (which disproportionately is in ‘graduate’ jobs) will impact on the link between place and the ‘graduateness’ of a job?

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