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What next for graduate jobs?

Many students have responded to the challenging labour market with creativity and resolve. We look at some of the employment trends of 2020 and the inspirational stories of those taking their first steps on the career ladder.

Getting a new job offer in a volatile labour market is never going to be easy or straightforward. This year the situation has been exacerbated by the many challenges of lockdown.

“You don’t think that when you receive a job offer it will be ripped away from you before you’ve even stepped foot through the door,”

said Adelle, a law student from the University of Liverpool.

Adelle had been through a six-stage application process before being offered a graduate job with an airport regulator. During the final weeks of her course, she received an email to say that the job offer had been cancelled.

“At the stage where my job offer was retracted, the devastation of COVID-19 hadn’t settled in and no one was prepared for the impact it would have on the job market,”

she explained.

“I also found myself furloughed from my part-time job. I was gutted and felt very lost. I began to feel demoralised by the process and lacked hope.”

More applicants, fewer jobs

Adelle is by no means alone this year. The Institute of Student Employers (ISE) reported in November that while competition for jobs heightened, with an average of 60 applications per vacancy, firms reduced their graduate jobs by 12% to cope with the pandemic – the biggest fall since the 2008 crisis.

Employers also took more unusual steps to defend themselves against the negative impact of the crisis.

A survey carried out by the graduate careers service Prospects, part of Jisc, found that, like Adelle, 28% of final year university students had their job offers rescinded or put on hold. Almost two-thirds of final year students felt negative about their careers with the majority lacking motivation (83%) and feeling disconnected from employers (82%).

Reduced work experience opportunities

While graduates battle the jobs market, students are faced with reduced work experience opportunities.

ISE reported that employers significantly cut internships and work placements this year by 29% and 25% respectively: the largest drop since 2010.

However, employers are finding alternatives – and a diverse and innovative range of work experience opportunities are being delivered virtually.

After completing the first year of her marketing and management degree at Newcastle University, Louise had her summer plans to work in a school in Europe cancelled. She found a remote volunteering opportunity with Studenteer through one of her LinkedIn connections.

“I’ve been working as a marketing strategist volunteer with Birthlight, a non-profit organisation dedicated to increasing the health and wellbeing of women and their families during and after pregnancy. Together with my mentor Sarah, we’ve created new campaigns and marketing strategies to relaunch both the Birthlight and Lullaby Quilt websites and social media channels,”

explains Louise.

“This academic year, I’ll be applying for industry placements as part of my degree. Having this experience on my CV shows employers I’ve been using my initiative and that I’m passionate about a career in marketing.”

Positive steps

Martha is studying BA primary education with QTS at the University of Bedfordshire. She has taken an entrepreneurial and creative approach to gaining valuable experience.

“I decided to set up a YouTube channel making arty videos back when lockdown was announced, as I saw how upset and confused children were first-hand, so I wanted to keep morale high.

"Initially, I had only intended for it to be used by the children at my placement school, although bizarrely it has spread and, looking at the demographics, people from India, New Zealand and the United States have seen my channel. One of my most successful videos is about making a dinosaur from a milk bottle. I am proud of it as well as myself for having the confidence to get it going.”

Martha took positive steps to beat the disconnection and isolation felt by many people during lockdown, using the time to make new connections and explore her interests.

“There’s a section on Twitter called ‘edutwitter’ and it’s a community of teaching and educational professionals all sharing their advice and resources. This, my interest in education and holding the government to account, instigated my ‘Manifesto for Change’.

"On Twitter, I’ve been able to engage with many professionals and use their experiences to help draw up ideas I would one day like to present to the Department for Education and their accompanying legislators.”

Looking up

It’s not all doom and gloom for employment prospects.

“While the graduate labour market has suffered an immense downturn, it has not collapsed, some sectors are holding up and people with degrees are faring better than those without,”

says Charlie Ball, head of HE intelligence for Prospects at Jisc.

“Graduates who do well are adapting to the new situation with a flexible and innovative approach to their career goals.”

The ISE reported that while graduate jobs in some sectors, particularly retail and FMCG, have fallen sharply, other sectors are growing. The charitable and public sectors have increased hiring while IT and engineering are crying out for the talent they need.

And Adelle found the determination to put her disappointment aside and carry on job-hunting. She said:

“I reminded myself that negativity wouldn’t get me a job and I knew that a positive mindset could only support my chances.

"I focused on my final year studies, dissertations and exams. I developed my fitness by running every morning without fail. I kept researching my career options, took part in surveys and ended up being interviewed by the media about my situation. I also found another part-time job, which ended up being full time. All of this kept me occupied, working and developing, and it helped me to feel connected to everything that was happening.

“When university came to a close in May I juggled working in a warehouse with researching and applying for jobs in the legal and government sectors. I completed around ten online applications in the end, some taking a good few hours just for the initial stage.”

Triumph over adversity

It took six months for Adelle’s tenacity to pay off. After three interviews she landed a position with the police in a trainee detective role.

“I’m loving it and consider myself extremely lucky. Granted, at the start of the year it was certainly not the role I expected to find myself in, but I think it happened for a reason. The role is diverse, challenging and enjoyable every day. Only two months in and I’ve done things that I never expected I would do. I have found it to be a blessing in the midst of COVID-19.”

Future trends

As many graduate employers plan their recruitment for 2021, it’s reasonable to anticipate similar trends to what we’ve seen this year. ISE predicts hiring across the board will probably be slightly down and employers will continue to innovate with virtual interviews and assessment centres.

While Adelle, Louise and Martha have seen their resolve pay off, many students showing the same determination have not had the same positive outcomes. Supporting all students with advice and guidance as they embark on their careers is more important than ever.

Find out more

Read advice, guidance and case studies on Prospects, at Jisc, and a weekly graduate labour market update on Luminate.

This story is featured as part of our annual review 2020-21. Read the other stories.