Bad time to graduate? Not necessarily, say university careers services

The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) responds to recent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report

University careers services believe higher education providers can help students overcome the impact of coronavirus on graduate employability.

The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) also said that the fact that so many lower-paid graduate occupations were crucial in combatting Covid-19 fight should change government policy on how to measure graduate outcomes.

Institue for Fiscal Studies report

The advice comes after a briefing from The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said graduates entering the workplace this year were “likely to suffer lower wages and employment levels for some time to come” due to the economic downturn caused by lockdown.

The report pointed to evidence from the last three recessions which suggested that graduates entering the labour market during a recession:

  • are significantly more likely than those graduating at other times to enter “non-graduate” employment such as in sales, customer service and leisure
  • will earn less in the first few years after graduation
  • will still be somewhat less likely to be in work at all than others even several years after graduation, although this effect was definitely more pronounced for school leavers than for graduates

‘Encourage and facilitate students to join the volunteering effort’

AGCAS members are operating remotely during the lockdown, offering students online appointments, live chat, vlogs, podcasts, Instagram or Facebook-live streams and responding to email enquiries.

Elaine Boyes, executive director of AGCAS, told University Business that while the coronavirus crisis will take its toll on the graduate labour market – especially in regions where small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are more strongly represented in the business landscape – it has also thrown up new opportunities for students to meet employers and gain vital work experience.

“Even internships and careers fairs are making the move online, so many students will still have the opportunity to meet and work with businesses, albeit in a different way.

“Universities have shown how vital they are in supporting the effort to fight COVID-19 by housing NHS workers, manufacturing PPE and conducting crucial scientific research. They can also help encourage and facilitate students to join the volunteering effort, to provide essential support to local communities and allow students to gain vital experience in the face of other offers being reneged.

“There are volunteering opportunities within the NHS, but also with food banks and charities that support the elderly or vulnerable members of society. Students can even volunteer to translate an online course about coronavirus, read and record books for public access and download or help Zoological Society London document animals from live videos.”

Motivational messaging

Ms Boyes added that universities must choose their language carefully when talking about graduate job prospects post-lockdown.

“The messaging used by the sector when talking about graduates’ prospects is critical. Of course, the situation is exceptional but talking about graduate opportunities “falling off a cliff” or the whole 2020 cohort being “lost” is unhelpful since it could influence graduates’ self-efficacy.

Careers services and universities should avoid describing this cohort of graduates as ‘unlucky’

“Instead, we need to help students and graduates maintain focus and not be too demoralised if an opportunity is deferred or cancelled. Graduate employers will still be looking to recruit in the future once some of the uncertainty has passed and a degree will always add value when applying for jobs.

“There will undoubtedly be some graduates left disappointed, but we should respond by encouraging graduates to consider non-linear opportunities and exploring new careers or jobs that they may not have considered previously.

“Careers services and universities should avoid describing this cohort of graduates as “unlucky” but as pioneers of online learning, who are being fast-tracked into future ways of working and are intrinsically valuable, resilient individuals beyond and despite the environment.”

Rethinking ‘success’, post-coronavirus

AGCAS also had advice for the government on how it should define graduate success in the aftermath of the upheaval caused by coronavirus.

“The unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in will influence what we consider good outcomes for graduates in the future. Key professions are not necessarily rewarded with the highest salary so should we continue to use this as a measure of graduate success?

“Perhaps going forward we should develop our understanding of other measures of success, dispensing with age-old definitions of ‘good/positive’ and ‘bad/negative’ outcomes, and consider the value of taking a more nuanced approach.

So many graduate occupations with lower salaries are currently crucial to society and the Covid-19 fight

“The Graduate Voice questions in the Graduate Outcomes Survey – graduates’ own reflections on their activity/outcomes, graduate job satisfaction, etc – present a real opportunity for a richer dataset and a more rounded set of employment metrics, which should be given the same prominence as traditional ‘employment metrics’.

“Graduate outcomes in terms of salary should be reconsidered as a measure of success given that so many graduate occupations with lower salaries are currently crucial to society and the Covid-19 fight.

“We would urge government and policy makers to rethink ‘value’. Using salary to define success has always been an issue given the difference in regional labour markets, average salaries and the impact on parental salary on graduate earnings, but particularly so in the current climate.

“The present circumstances offer the opportunity to rethink definitions of success given the public services roles graduates will fulfil in the recovery.”

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