It’s safe to say that right now, it’s an uncertain time to be a student. An indication of the fate that could befall many of this decade’s graduates is already becoming clear; a report commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (the professional body for HR and people development) found that the growing amount of graduates in the labour market has “significantly outstripped” the creation of graduate-level jobs.
In damning statistics, the CIPD’s August report claimed that 58.8 per cent of graduates were in non-graduate jobs in the UK, and that the country has one of the highest levels of self-reported graduate over-qualification in Europe.
The number of graduates has outstripped the number of graduate jobs available
Consequences of the over-saturation of graduates for high-skilled jobs include employers asking for degrees for traditionally non-graduate roles, leading to graduates replacing non-graduates in less demanding jobs or entering positions where there is little graduate skills demand, according to the report.
When I speak to Ben Willmott, the CIPD’s head of public policy, his own experiences with the UK education system make his calls for change seem incredibly authentic, rather than feeling like he’s simply echoing his employer’s findings.
“At the age of sixteen, I was specifically told not to be a journalist [a career that he in fact went on to pursue for several years], because I was told that it was too competitive,” he tells me during our conversation.
“I was put through one of the early computer career programmes and the one thing it came out suggesting that I do was be a zookeeper. So I received absolutely no helpful career advice at all – I was just left floundering.”
“But I think the sad thing is, from what I can tell, that’s still not too uncommon a story. Still too many young people are given really, really inadequate career advice, and when they get it, it’s often too late, or too far down the road.”
In light of the report, we’ve been talking about how degrees are not necessarily equipping graduates with the skills they might use in the future. Willmott’s own background is reflective of this – he trained as a journalist after being unable to get a job, despite getting a History and Politics degree.
“The route to a professional job was actually doing quite a vocational qualification in the end, and I’m sure I probably do draw some of the skills I learnt when I was doing my degree but, to be honest, most of the skills that I use now are skills that I developed as a journalist.”
Willmott sees a lack of career guidance for young people as one of the reasons why graduates have outstripped the number of graduate-level jobs. When I ask him, in light of talk in recent years of ‘Mickey Mouse’ qualifications, whether the reason for the problem is too many degrees on offer, his response is: “Possibly, but I also think it’s because the alternatives to university are not very high quality. Most apprenticeships that we produce are at Level 2, with comparatively few at advanced level and just a fraction at higher level, so unfortunately the apprenticeship route is still too often seen as a route for academic underachievers rather than as a viable, high-quality way of accessing the labour market. We do still have a default position where too many young people opt for university without really thinking enough about what type of career they want, what type of different options might be open to them.”
We need to make SIGNIFICANT efforts to improve the quality of careers advice young people receive
University is a lucrative business – what with the high tuition fees for students. Willmott affirms that “to a significant degree”, universities put the financial benefits of taking in students over the students’ best interests, given that the jobs that they end up doing may not even have required a degree.
“The Edge Foundation did an analysis of the government’s graduate destination data, and what that showed is that some of the jobs that the survey was suggesting were graduate-level jobs were things like police constables, fitness instructors, estate agents, and these are all good jobs, but you can certainly access all of those jobs without having a degree,” Willmott explains.
Willmott warns that the problem is affecting non-graduates too.
“Our report showed that the prevalence of increasing numbers of graduates was squeezing out opportunities for apprenticeships in those sectors, so the danger is that you create this labour market which means if you don’t have a degree, you are disadvantaged,” he explains.
“Sometimes, having a degree is the first sort of sift, so if you don’t have a degree you won’t even make it to interview,” he later adds.
Willmott notes that this is beginning to change, however, with companies like Nestlé “recruiting for values and attitudes rather than for qualification level”, and Barclays now hiring school leavers and apprentices to work in their call centres after noticing that the graduates they used to hire did not stay for long and had low job engagement.
Willmott is adamant about the negative consequences of skills mismatch. “The OECD produced a report recently which estimated that if the level of skills mismatch in the UK was reduced to the OECD average, then the UK would see a high per cent productivity dividend,” he explains.
Shockingly, there is also a link between mental health and over-qualification.
“We’ve also done some work with one of our employee surveys which showed that over-qualification was associated with lower levels of wellbeing in the workplace and lower levels of job satisfaction.”
The report came on the day before of A Level Results Day, which, ironically, saw a record 409,000 people admitted onto higher education courses in the UK. Isn’t the problem going to get worse?
Shockingly there is also a link between mental health and over-qualification
“I think with the government’s own estimate that 45 per cent of student loans won’t be repaid, [the numbers of students] is something that needs to be really reviewed,” Willmott says in his response to this question.
So what needs to be done? During our interview, Willmott offers three key points: “One is we need to ensure that we improve our vocational education and training system so it’s a viable, high-quality alternative to university.
“Two: we need to make significant further efforts to improve the quality of information, advice and guidance that young people get from at least the age of 14, and finally, we need a much clearer strategy to generate more high-skilled jobs in the UK, and that strategy needs to be concerned with helping businesses to improve their leadership and management capability, highlighting the value of investing in people’s skills in the workplace, better work organisation and job design, so that people’s skills can be utilised effectively regardless of which route they took into employment.”
Some of these points already seem to be in development. Willmott supports a system of universities sharing apprenticeships, citing the University of Sheffield; in July it announced would be offering degree-level manufacturing apprenticeships alongside its traditional degree programmes. But what can those who are already students do?
“Really take every opportunity to build employability skills while you’re at university. Work experience is crucial – if you can do an internship, do it. Build those skills, build those relationships; ultimately it’s those skills that will enable you to compete in the labour market.”
From talking to Willmott, it’s clear to see that the days of degrees being a golden ticket to a high-level job are gone. With graduates at saturation point, only time will tell the effect this has on the labour market in the future.