Maisie Marston, 20, will graduate this year into the worst recession in centuries. “I’ve been job hunting and it’s difficult to find things,” she says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.” As a result of the pandemic, Marston has decided to delay the journalism master’s she had planned, so she can save money first. “It would also be good to get work experience, as I’ll miss out on doing it this summer.”
The “corona class of 2020” will be the most exposed age group to the likely unemployment surge caused by the Covid-19 crisis, leading to fears of a “dole queue future” for young people, the Resolution Foundation thinktank warned this month.
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More than a quarter of employers have cut their graduate recruitment this year, according to a recent survey by the Institute of Student Employers. However Stephen Isherwood, its chief executive, says the picture is “mixed”, with other employers still recruiting online.
It’s difficult to predict how this will play out over the next five years, Isherwood says. Transport, travel and leisure industries could be heavily hit. Professional services such as law and accountancy could sit somewhere in the middle of the scale, while public sector graduate employers like Teach First or the police are likely to be resilient. The tech sector could continue to see growth.
In this changing job market, students say they are anxious about the future: 81% are concerned about job prospects and 71% about their employability, according to the National Union of Students (NUS).
Phoebe Davis, 23, who is studying a journalism master’s at the University of Sheffield, fears she won’t be financially independent for a long time. “It’s scary more than anything. I’m worried I’m not going to get a job,” she says. “There’s a huge chunk of students coming out of university with no idea what’s going to happen.”
Polly Hatcher, 23, studied history at the University of Leeds and is now considering a master’s due to limited job opportunities. “I feel a bit lost,” she says. “I had a plan and this has thrown a spanner in the works.” Hatcher hopes further study will allow her to bide time, give her a niche, and make her a stronger candidate.
Those who graduate into a decimated job market are often advised to go abroad or to continue education. With options for the former limited by the pandemic, experts are predicting an uptake in postgraduate courses over the next few years.
A master’s can give students more skills in a competitive job market. However, Isherwood warns not to look at further study as “the easy safe option”, since not all postgraduate degrees improve employment prospects.
Not everyone can afford this option, either. “The recession will compound disadvantages,” Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation, says. One way it could do this is through greater take up of postgraduate courses among wealthier students, he adds.
Hillman believes universities now have a “significant responsibility” to consider the employability of their graduates. In recent years, there has been growing recognition of the need to future-proof students’ skills for a changing world of work, as automation was already expected to alter jobs over the coming decades. The pandemic may have made the focus on transferable skills even more necessary.
“We often say our students are going into jobs that don’t exist yet and in a way that’s what employers will look for,” says Natalie Brett, head of London College of Communication and pro vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts, London.
Soft skills such as flexibility, resilience, communication, problem solving, and creativity were already becoming increasingly important and will likely become even more desirable, Brett says, while digital skills could be more in demand as organisations move services online.
Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, says universities have faced growing demand from students to help them to develop such skills. “That’s only going to build as we move forward in this difficult time,” she says.
Many careers services are currently providing services online. “We’re busier than ever,” says Claire Guy, a careers advisor at a Russell Group university and a member of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services. “We’ve always run workshops on developing a positive mindset, but there’s a new flavour to that now. There’s not just a need [for students] to be resilient about job rejections, but about the fact they might have to change their whole career plan.”
Hillman says he fears universities – which face a “financial black hole” estimated at over £2.5bn – don’t have the ability or expertise to give students the increased support they will need. “[Universities] might have to do some rapid rethinking and partner with national organisations in the employment sector,” he says. “But that might not be their top priority.”
Universities UK is currently working with universities, careers services and employers on ways to provide additional support for recent graduates and current students, such as through enhanced careers services.
Meanwhile, the NUS is urging the government to offer financial support for students graduating this year. “Graduates and education leavers need a safety net: government intervention to support them by introducing a grant to be used towards further education, training, and other activity that will improve their job prospects,” Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS vice-president for higher education, says.
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Support given now could help limit “long-term scarring” caused by graduating into a recession. “[Students graduating now] face a cliff edge,” Hillman says. “Evidence from previous recessions shows the effects of this can last at least up to a decade and possibly beyond that, with regards to earnings and job satisfaction.”
Becci Newton, deputy director of public policy research at the Institute of Employment Studies, says new graduates will need to keep moving in the early stage of their career and stay focused on their goals to avoid stagnating. “The ability to continuously learn and develop becomes the crucial key skill,” she says.
All of this may sound daunting to the class of 2020. For Marston, the pandemic has already made her reflect upon work. “It’s put into perspective what jobs really matter,” she says. “I like the fact that with journalism you can contribute something and it’s also a job you can do from home if you need to.” However, despite her renewed sense of purpose, she still feels held back by the pandemic. “The uncertainty of not knowing what will happen next year is hard,” she says. “I’m not sure what to expect – but I’m hoping for the best.”
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