Graduate unemployment: what is your degree worth?
If I sit-back and think about where I’ll be in ten years’ time, I see myself living in a detached suburban house, in a good neighbourhood. I have an expensive sports car – or possibly a 4×4 – sitting in my garage, and a wardrobe full of designer clothes. I have a swimming pool in my back yard, and I regularly go on exotic foreign holidays. I’ll be able to afford all this because I’ll be a highly-paid banker in the City. That’s always been my plan: get a degree in Economics from a good university, get a job in an investment bank and work my way up. I suspect I am not alone in my aspirations; in fact, many students probably have similar intentions and goals to mine. But surely we can’t all live this dream?
Twenty-five years ago, I could rest assured that my dream would come true. If I got a decent degree from a good university, then all I had to do was put in a bit of hard work and I’d be there. So what’s changed? Firstly, more people than ever are graduating from UK universities. The obvious implications of this mean that finding a job – let alone a dream job – will be a lot more competitive. Sadly, having a degree is no longer an instant ticket to a well-paid job, with a depressing 8.9% of 2009’s graduates currently unemployed. In July 2009, the then Shadow Secretary of State for Universities David Willetts said: “These figures show yet again that young people are the biggest victims of the recession. The employment rate of graduates was falling even before the recession took hold. We now have record levels of young people not in education, employment or training. Ministers are letting our young people down.”
So, how can we secure our dream jobs? With employers becoming increasingly selective, it seems graduates need to have an edge; something that makes them stand out from the crowd. According to MSN News UK, IT skills and the ability to speak foreign languages are considered by employers to be the most valuable employability skills. But if your IT skills could do with improvement, and your linguistic skills extend only to the three years of French you did in secondary school before dropping it in year 9, don’t worry; application forms regularly ask for details of extra-curricular activities, hobbies or voluntary work – yes, it seems now you need to be all-singing, all-dancing to be in with a chance of even an interview. So take note: get involved with as many things as you can while you can, because you can bet your bottom dollar that when it comes to apply for your first job after graduation there’ll be plenty of better and brighter graduates than you all competing for that elusive position.
One of the best ways to boost your chances is to secure yourself an internship. Despite being primarily aimed at second year students, third year students who have left it all too late will be glad to know that they are still eligible to apply to some companies. However, getting a placement on an internship scheme is probably as difficult as it is to secure a graduate job. If the arduous and repetitive application forms don’t deter you, then the tailored-to-that-company-specifically CV and covering letter you have to type out every time might; this is on top of listing and elaborating on all the sports and charities and societies you’ve been involved in.
Of course, no matter how polished your CV may be, you have to obtain a decent grade in a sought-after subject to maximise your chances of employment, with BBC News reporting that 78% of employers are refusing graduates that did not achieve at least a 2:1. According to the Guardian, Computer Science was the most difficult degree with which to gain employment in 2008, while the most employable degree of the year was Dentistry, with a mere 3% out of work six months after graduation. The industry that has been the most negatively affected by the recession has been the City, where 56% of graduate level jobs were axed last year. Speaking from a purely economic perspective, the best degree subjects to study are Medicine, Dentistry, and Chemical Engineering, with graduates of these disciplines earning an average of £28,897, £28,813 and £26,366 respectively. Despite its relatively low average starting salary of £17,549, Media was the industry that graduates of 2010 most wanted to work in, with 15.2% of them stating they had either applied or planned to go into the industry. Teaching was the next most popular destination for the class of 2010, with 14.0% of them wanting to work in the profession. The industry that the fewest graduates of 2010 – just 2.3% – wanted to work within was Property, which is perhaps surprising given that it’s average starting salary is a respectable £22,883. Conversely, the least financially rewarding degree subjects to study are Celtic Studies, Music and Archaeology. Graduates of these courses can only expect to earn, on average, £16,604, £17,017 and £17,065 respectively.
Faced with these levels of unemployment, many graduates are unsurprisingly beginning to turn to postgraduate study. Graduates seemingly feel that an additional qualification could make them stand out to prospective employers, but this begs the question; if increasing numbers of graduates are obtaining Masters degrees, will we end up in a situation similar to the one we find ourselves in now? Only, this could lead to a situation whereby having two degrees will be considered the standard requirement of applying for what were formally considered undergraduate-level posts. Making the situation worse still is the worrying notion that, if having a Masters degree does become the norm, then graduates will be saddled with even more debt. It may simply be the sad truth that, in the not-too-distant future, many will simply be priced out of going to university. Those undertaking postgraduate qualifications are also said to be happier with their choice of degree subject than the typical undergraduate. Faced with unemployment after their undergraduate degrees, postgraduates are more inclined to think very carefully about their Masters degree subject, being all too aware of their employment prospects. However, according to AGR (Association of Graduate Recruiters), furthering academic study after gaining an undergraduate degree is not advisable. Of the graduate employers polled, those undertaking Masters degrees or PhDs were the least appealing to employers, followed by graduates who chose to take a gap year or gain employment in another sector. In the same survey, it was revealed that employers prefer graduates to either take temporary or unpaid work, or skills training, should they be unable to find immediate employment after graduation. Also valuable to employers was a willingness to relocate for a job. Members of the AGR advised graduates to research the job roles they were applying for and the sectors they were interested in, as well as improving their interview techniques.
With the current graduate unemployment figures, graduates should be thinking very carefully about which industry they want to go in to. According to The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers, the biggest graduate recruiting industry of 2011 is Accountancy or Professional Services Firms, which offers 22.4% of total graduate vacancies. So if you’re set to graduate next year, this could be the industry for you. Other smart choices include the Investment Banks and Fund Managers sector, which is just behind Accountancy and Professional Services Firms, with 18.5% of total vacancies, an increase of 33.7% on the year before. Meanwhile, it’s bad news for those set to graduate in Chemistry or Pharmaceuticals next year with the industry providing the smallest share of 2011’s vacancies: a mere 0.4%, which is a drop of 3.0% on 2010.
So, should I wave goodbye to my detached house in the suburbs? Perhaps I should set my sights a little lower. The rising graduate unemployment doesn’t bode well for my dream of a highly-paid job in the City, and it looks as though the labour market’s only going to get more competitive. But those top jobs are still out there, and somebody’s got to do them. For the next three years, I am determined to jump through every hoop I have to in order to get that dream job. So, in ten years’ time will I be sunbathing by my back yard swimming pool, or jetting off to exotic paradises? It’s far from certain, but I’ve not given up hope!