Time to talk about the graduate jobs crisis

The Resolution Foundation has published a briefing note on changes in youth unemployment and study since the onset of Covid-19.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Uneven steps shows that the crisis has been characterised not just by young people losing their jobs, but also by recent education leavers struggling to find their first job too.

Between 2019 and 2020 unemployment among graduates and non-graduates who had left full-time education within the previous year rose by 4 percentage points each, to 18 and 14 per cent, respectively. Interestingly, it’s young male graduates who are bearing the biggest bit of the brunt. Between 2019 and 2020 unemployment among young male graduates rose more than 5 percentage points to 17.5 per cent – young graduate men had a higher unemployment rate than both their female counterparts (10.2 per cent) and non-graduate men (15.9 per cent).

Among under 25s generally, unemployment rose from 11.8 to 14.2 per cent, but that varied substantially for different groups of young people. Graduates were still better off than counterparts with lower-level qualifications, but the size of the increase in unemployment was proportionally larger among graduates. Between 2019 and 2020, unemployment rose from 10 to 13.3 per cent among graduates (a 33 per cent increase) and from 17 to 20.4 per cent among those with lower-level qualifications (a 20 per cent increase).

There are some major ethnicity differences too. Between 2019 and 2020 the size of the increase in unemployment among young Black graduates (11.6 points, from 22.1 to 33.7 per cent) was nearly three times the size of the increase in unemployment among White counterparts (4.1 points, from 8.7 to 12.8 per cent). And in the second half of 2020, the unemployment rate among young White graduates (12.8 per cent) was lower than that of young Asian graduates (15.9 per cent) and under half that of young Black graduates (33.7 per cent).

Although it’s true (as noted in the Sewell report) that young people from Black and Asian backgrounds participate in education at a higher rate than their White counterparts, those that are economically active face on average a more difficult experience in the labour market compared to young White people. And the already weak employment position of Black young people has deteriorated further than those of their White counterparts since the onset of Covid-19.

This is huge – we really are looking at “lost generation” scale stuff here, and yet the only lobbying on it we’ve heard from the mission groups has been in the context of careers advice and return to campus, rather than properly scaled economic intervention solutions to prevent the deep scarring that this could all cause.

RF argues that policy will need to recognise the sacrifices younger people have made in order to reduce the spread of the virus and ultimately save lives, including a “threefold approach” towards improving the opportunity and distribution of employment outcomes for younger people:

  • Invest in initiatives that help young people into quality work.
  • In light of the positive role that education has played in sheltering young people from many of the longer-term scarring effects of youth unemployment, ensure that young people have sufficient, high-quality education and training options.
  • Encouraging firms to investigate inequalities within their own workforce.

The issue is, at least, on DfE’s radar. Lost in the noise of the return to campus announcement, universities minister Michelle Donelan said the government was exploring ways to provide support for students while appreciating “how vital it is that we support graduates and new students as they move into their next stage”:

We are working in parallel with Universities UK, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the Institute of Student Employers, the Office for Students, and the wider sector to understand what we can do to complement their planned support.

We know that providers are best placed to lead on this and have assured them that we will work with them to signpost students to useful resources, share good practice, and communicate effectively with schools, colleges, and employers.

If that sounds like fairly empty words, dumping the problem onto providers and preparing to blame them for poor employment outcomes you’d probably be right – but at least the government more broadly is doing it can to “help people who are at the start of their career journey”:

The Department for Work and Pensions has successfully recruited over 13,500 new work coaches as of the end of March 2021. This will ensure that high-quality work search support is available to those who need it.

We are also investing additional funding in the National Careers Service up to March 2022. This investment will support delivery of individual careers advice for those whose jobs/learning have been affected by the pandemic (by end of FY21-22).

We have also added additional courses to the skills toolkit to develop “work readiness” skills that employers report they value in their new recruits.

We shouldn’t dismiss those interventions out of hand. But they feel like tiny, microscopic sticking plasters on gaping wounds.

“Swift and sweeping” policy is needed that gets us beyond finding ways to sharpen graduates’ elbows to grab an insufficient number of jobs.

While the economy recovers we both need big, funded job guarantee schemes, and sector wide measures on reducing or eradicating the costs of careers focussed postgraduate study – that would help those who would benefit from staying in education for a little longer, and compensate a little for the miserable time that students have had this year.

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