‘The job market isn’t totally on its knees’: why there’s hope for anxious graduates

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Record redundancies, rising unemployment and declining job opportunities: it’s clear that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the jobs market. Those at the beginning of their career are especially vulnerable, with entry level jobs slashed by nearly a quarter and 40% of placements and internships cancelled.

Students could perhaps be forgiven, then, for feeling gloomy about their prospects after graduating.

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Mahel Khan, a final-year management student at Nottingham University and education vlogger, said he’d been disheartened after his internship at RBS was cancelled. “That gave me an idea of how times would be bleak in the future,” he said. “It won’t just be the class of 2021 which will be struggling to find a job post-Covid, but also 2022, 2023 and even 2024.”

But according to Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers, there is some cause for optimism. “It’s a tough job market but it’s important to remember it’s not totally on its knees. Our data shows it’s 12% down but if you flip that on its head, it means roughly 80% of pre-pandemic recruitment is happening again this year and next year – so there is positivity out there.”

Isherwood added that the picture is very different depending on the sector: retail, transport and travel have reduced graduate recruitment substantially, but professional services, including law and finance, remain similar. Public sector roles have even increased – especially alternative routes into teaching, prison jobs and policing. “It’s important everyone does their homework on this,” he said.

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Khan and Isherwood’s comments came in answer to the question of how universities can help graduates survive the Covid jobs crisis, which was the subject of an online panel hosted by the Guardian and supported by Adobe.

Fellow panellist Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor of Aston University, advised current students to start thinking about employment as early as possible – even during their first year. His university is unusual in requiring all students to complete a work placement, which forces them to make contact with careers advisers and start preparing their portfolios from the moment they arrive. He added that universities should help their graduates by identifying possible employers after they leave and helping them prepare for interviews.

This work is especially important for students who lack family connections to the professional world, he said. “We have a very diverse mix of students, most of whom don’t have family who’ve gone to university. Just that experience of turning up to a professional job is not something they’ve seen in their parents. It’s not about content [for work placements], it’s about culture, practice and behaviour.”

Khan said that one of his best experiences of careers support at university was an obligatory module in his first year on professional development, which included practical skills like CV writing. He thought this was more effective than expecting students to reach out to careers services themselves. “Students might not be confident or worry that their CV’s not up to scratch, or [struggle] to admit that they just don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.

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Mark Andrews, pedagogical evangelist at Adobe, added that students should focus on acquiring certain soft skills, most of which haven’t changed during the pandemic. “Employers really value communication, creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking,” he said. “That’s remained the same for the past few years but has accelerated recently.”

Tanya de Grunwald, author of How to Get a Graduate Job in a Pandemic, sought to reassure anxious graduates who didn’t start preparing early that there are still opportunities. “It’s always been normal to graduate without engaging with the careers service,” she said.

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She recommended that graduates identify which jobs will be less oversubscribed rather than competing against hundreds of applicants for the most popular roles, and to focus on getting a job rather than landing their dream role. “It’s about being flexible and open-minded,” she said.

In the meantime, Isherwood suggested that students and graduates think creatively about how to gain work experience that will set them apart from other candidates. “It doesn’t have to be some gold-plated internship in a tower in Canary Wharf, it can be delivering food to people self-isolating or Christmas temp work at a supermarket. Anything that gets you out there – employers love that kind of stuff.”

On the panel

Rachel Hall (chair), universities editor, the Guardian

Mark Andrews, pedagogical evangelist, Adobe

Prof Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor, Aston University

Tanya de Grunwald, journalist, founder of Graduate Fog and author of How to Get a Graduate Job in a Pandemic

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Stephen Isherwood, chief executive, Institute of Student Employers

Mahel Khan, student and education vlogger