Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Big Wide World - Wages up, jobs down – the latest graduate rollercoaster

Rebecca Campbell, contributor
(Image: Rex Features )

The latest report from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) came out last week. Having been asked to report on it for Big Wide World, this was the first AGR publication I had actually read from cover to cover. Normally, I would only come across the report if I picked up a newspaper that had covered its findings.
It isn't something I actively seek out as I don't often feel like being reminded of the vast number of applicants who will be competing for every job vacancy I go for, or that I would have been effectively worthless if I had got anything below a 2:1 in my undergraduate degree. It is hard enough trying to finish my education without being made to face up to the harsh reality of life beyond graduation.
For those of you unfamiliar with the AGR report, it is one of several publications that take the temperature of the graduate job market. Published twice a year, it reports on the results of a survey sent out to the graduate employers on its books. This time 214 companies responded, which between them were thought to account for over 21,000 graduate vacancies last year.
The AGR were the people responsible for the infamous "70 applicants battle for every graduate job" headlines that were splashed across the front pages of the broadsheets and the red tops alike in July 2010. That scarily huge number seared itself onto the brains of nervous soon-to-be graduates, and generally provoked a bit of an outcry. What was the point of going to university if graduates were then going to be advised to flip burgers? (The figures for last year were actually even worse - 83 candidates for every vacancy, but by then our plight was old news so the resulting fallout was less).
This year, the coverage has tended to make page 6 rather page 1, and there seems to be less of a unanimous message (albeit possibly because those headline-friendly stats come out in the July edition of the report rather than January).
The Guardian and the BBC headline writers accentuated the positive - focusing on the predicted four per cent salary rise - to £26,000 - after three years of stagnant starting salaries. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph headlines unsurprisingly took a more negative angle,  focusing on the reported lack of high calibre candidates out there despite the surplus of graduates. Also widely reported was that despite the number of graduate vacancies rising by 1.7 per cent in 2011 compared to the previous year, 2012 is predicted to see a drop of 1.2 per cent.
Scientists and engineers looking for related jobs should take heart though: the sectors that are expecting to see a significant rise in vacancies, despite the overall downward trend, include IT and telecommunications; construction companies or consultancies; the public sector; energy, water or utilities companies; and engineering or investment companies. Although, don't forget that these sectors tend to offer fewer jobs in the first place than the accountancy, banking and business service sectors that provided 67 per cent of the graduate vacancies last year.
The AGR responded to the 1.2 per cent decline with cautious optimism, saying the results predict the graduate job market will "remain relatively stable" this year. Sure, it could have been a lot worse, and could still turn out to be (these are only predictions for the coming year) thanks to the renewed economic crisis, but this doesn't do much to ease my mind or my friends'.
The fact remains that we will be worse off than last year's cohort when it comes to finding a job, even if it's only by half a per cent. After all, as we keep being told, with so many applicants chasing every job, that half per cent drop will matter!
Another area that the AGR highlighted in their report is the rise of the two-year degree. This is a recent phenomenon which sees some universities offering a condensed version of the conventional three or four year degree. Unsurprisingly, this route is proving popular with students keen to reduce their fees by £9000 or so, but employers aren't so enthusiastic.
According to the report, employers place value on graduates gaining a year's work experience in their chosen industry as part of their degree. They believe that those who follow the new route won't have the time to develop these skills due to the increased workload.
Surely, though, other factors should be taken into account when considering the merit of these shorter degrees. Some of my contemporaries struggled to keep up with their three-year undergraduate degrees - especially not while making time for such essential activities as going out on the town five nights a week. By condensing the work into a third less time, perhaps students will be a third more focused on their studies and a third better at time management?
I hope that those who end up taking this more affordable route won't be penalised because they don't fit the requirements of a potential employer. I can see the headlines now..."Graduates told their two-year degree is worthless".
Just because a graduate may have taken a different route to get their degree doesn't mean they are any less capable of performing well in their chosen profession. As some of last week's coverage reminded us, a graduate who has a three-year degree and at least a year's work experience can still end up unable to perform to the standards their employer expects, even if they do, at the outset, meet the basic requirements.
So am I glad I was forced to read the AGR report this year? I'm not sure. It's hard to relate the findings back to my situation, especially as at the moment I am more concerned about completing the work set for my master's than completing job applications. I tell myself that the nature of my course, which has allowed me to make contacts through my tutors and various work placements, will mean I'm in an advantageous position when it comes to searching for a job.
The trouble is most other soon-to-be-graduates are probably thinking the same. 

Rebecca Campbell is doing a master's in environmental journalism and will finish studying this September. 

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