A report released by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in April didn’t leave graduates or students much to be cheery about.
The paper, entitled, A Bad Time to Graduate, was filled with bleak predictions about the shape of the jobs market for graduates in 2020, and next year. And that was six months ago – long before the huge disruption Covid has caused to this academic year, and the long-term prospects for the economy.
Even then there were plenty of reasons for undergraduates to be anxious about the future. Numerous studies and surveys as early as April and May showed employers suspending their graduate recruitment programs in light of the crisis, and drastically cutting back elsewhere.
A report published by the Institute of Student Employers revealed that a “heightened level of uncertainty caused by Covid-19 along with concerns about the financial sustainability of firms is leading to a reduction in planned recruitment. On average firms are cutting entry level recruitment by around a quarter (23%) this year”.
This tough outlook isn’t just confined to the UK – anything but. Research published by the ISE in July, based on findings gathered from graduate recruitment experts based in 21 countries around the world, revealed that in only three of these countries the respondent saw prospects for growth in the near future.
And as the IFS made clear in April, in the starkest terms, “Given the likely scale of the downturn into which they will be graduating, it is likely to take at least five, and perhaps 10 years, for these effects to wear off”.
2020 has been one of the most anxious and disruptive years in modern history. It’s easy to feel completely forlorn in these circumstances. But it’s important to remember that adversity isn’t something just to be feared – it can be a great opportunity.
While graduate recruitment might be down, this year and next, that doesn’t mean it’s stopping all together. In fact graduate recruitment has been significantly less badly affected than the overall jobs market.
The jobs most at risk, indeed those that have already been lost, are mainly within the service industry – retail, bars, restaurants and other entertainment sectors – and construction. Conversely professional jobs – those that can be done from home, which tend to be taken by graduates – have been far less severely affected.
And much of the cutback in graduate recruitment is accounted for by a number of major industries, such as construction, and hospitality, due to sector-specific factors. Overall there are plenty of industries which will be welcoming graduate entry-level staff this year and next, despite the circumstances.
Indeed, this might be the opportunity of a working lifetime for many. Major innovations often follow periods of major stress and upheaval, and it’s often the brightest of young minds who make them happen. As the IES says, “it is possible to argue that in a period of challenge and change, when many old assumptions are being questioned, graduates will be needed more than ever”.
Writing in the Guardian in May, ISE chief executive Steven Isherwood offered some hope to graduates, and a warning: “As the world teeters on its axis,” he wrote, “it’s easy to forget that the economy could rebound relatively quickly and the jobs market will recover. In the face of so much uncertainty, it might be tempting for students to bury their heads under the duvet and assume recruiters have stopped recruiting. But these are the students whose careers will suffer the greatest downturn.”
The best advice out there seems to be to keep your options open. The future is largely unwritten, and tech is advancing at a phenomenal pace. Which means that the skills graduates are learning today could become obsolete, or at the very least, need constant updating and revision as they progress through their careers.
It’s also less clear which sectors of the economy are going to rebound the quickest, and therefore which will be the most active recruiters when they do. So it would be wise for students to keep an open mind about the sort of jobs, even careers, they choose straight after graduating. It would be a smart move to consider a Plan B, and a Plan C, before you even leave uni – and not to rush into anything when you do.
Whatever graduates do they certainly don’t need to do it alone. Universities are responding to the extraordinary times with extraordinary measures on campus; with time they will adapt their careers advice services to match. And there are a number of fascinating initiatives out there, many of which have emerged from the Covid crisis, designed to offer support and hope to graduates facing the daunting prospect of the jobs market.
Among these are several programmes for graduates to gain that vital bit of experience, including a “virtual internship” scheme by charity upReach, and Generation Help, a new platform to connect graduates with SMEs looking to recruit in the crisis.
The emergence of these initiatives should be a lesson for all of us, not least those feeling despondent about their future jobs prospects. A lesson that there are always reasons to be hopeful, even in the face of great adversity, and there are always options, and opportunities, if you’re willing to look.