The road less travelled: 2020 graduates must be flexible and resilient

Students should be encouraged to feel optimistic about the post-Covid-19 jobs market, says Professor Zahir Irani of the University of Bradford

While evidence already points to young people being the most likely to be affected by Covid-19-related redundancy, students remain remarkably confident about their job prospects according to a recent Hepi report.

79% of the 1,000 undergrads surveyed said they were confident about getting a graduate job. 71% said the pandemic hadn’t affected their attitudes to the future.

It’s a mismatch that needs addressing by universities.

Without a doubt, Covid-19 is going to impact on the propensity of traditional graduate recruiters to employ new graduates as they re-structure and adapt their shape and size to current and future economic conditions. More than ever, post-pandemic, students need to be ready to be flexible in their ambitions.

Traditional pathways leading straight from subject degrees into specifically related careers were being eroded before the crisis and re-shaped, but students continue to see themselves following this simple route: around three-quarters of students in the Hepi survey plan to go into a career directly related to their degree subject. 64% have a fixed career in mind. The whole nature of ‘employability’ and its direct link with ‘employment’ is still seen in terms of collecting a specific set of skills relevant to a career role (according to 68%).

Recruitment is still happening, the wheels of many organisations need to keep on turning

A first step is making sure students are staying in touch with employers, having the conversations and discussions that make them aware of changing needs; that they are conscious of new realities and limitations, while seeing how there continues to be opportunities, and that there’s every reason to feel excited about the future. Recruitment is still happening, the wheels of many organisations need to keep on turning with new ideas and optimism.

In May, the University of Bradford managed to move its career fair online, connecting up employers, students and graduates through a day of webinars, live group chats, and one-to-one video meetings. The careers team was online to run one-to-one appointments and webinars on CV development, using social media and interview and assessment centre preparation.

This is just the start of our plans to keep engaging with students on the new importance and nature of employability and employment.

If ever there was a need for a civic university, it’s now, and universities like Bradford are ready

Because, while some businesses will unfortunately not survive into the post-pandemic world, space will have been made for new business ventures to emerge; new thinking and use of technology will allow new enterprises to take the space of others and create whole new markets and opportunities for work. There is likely to be more localism, more local collaboration and partnerships in the wake of the pandemic experience and the need to shorten supply chains, more opportunities for meeting local community needs and social enterprises. If ever there was a need for a civic university, it’s now, and universities like Bradford are ready.

In other words, students and universities need to be prepared for more of a rollercoaster. HE needs to play its part in encouraging resilience, breaking through any comfortable layers of assumptions and complacency when it comes to the jobs market by instilling, most of all, an entrepreneurial spirit: exercises and activities that are rooted in self-reliance, independence and creativity rather than an expectation of being eased onto a corporate ladder.

Bradford’s Career Booster, an annual programme of intensive professional development, open to all students, is being evolved to emphasise these personal qualities in addition to the practical skills in digital working, data analytics and AI, etc that will play an ever more far-reaching role in the future of work.

Professor Zahir Irani is pro-vice chancellor of the University of Bradford:

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