Graduates in non-graduate jobs whats the story

Understanding the routes which graduates take to graduate-level employment can help students, universities and colleges, and employers to improve graduate employability.

HEFCE is continuing to develop a breadth of evidence related to graduate employment outcomes and employability.

A new report by the Warwick Institute for Employment Research (IER) adds a further insight by looking at graduates in non-graduate jobs.

The report tracked employment among two cohorts of students. It compared the ‘class of 1999’ with the ‘classes of 2009 and 2010’.

The headlines

The IER report finds that many from the class of 1999 entered non-graduate employment during the first fifteen months after graduating, which they then left for graduate employment.

The classes of 2009 and 2010, who entered a recession-hit jobs market, were more likely to remain in non-graduate jobs.

Those least likely to find themselves in non-graduate employment were: men; those working in London; graduates from mathematics and computer science, medicine, engineering, and education programmes; graduates from higher-tariff higher education institutions; graduates with a first-class degree; and graduates who had gained employment experience.

Many of the themes in the IER report support wider evidence about graduate outcomes, from the Shadbolt Review of Computer Sciences degree accreditation and graduate employability, the Wakeham Review of STEM degree provision and graduate employability, and HEFCE analysis of differential outcomes of graduates, including the impact of graduating during a recession. We explore some of these themes below.

The economy

For the classes of 2009 and 2010 who were considered in the IER report, non-graduate positions held during the recession led, in some cases, to graduate jobs or acted as holding positions during recruitment freezes. But many graduates who were first employed in non-graduate jobs remained in those roles. They lost contact with potential graduate employers, and therefore, the potential for graduate employment.

A recent HEFCE investigation explored these issues by taking an in-depth look at the effects of graduating during a recession. This looked at 2007-08 graduates – the first cohort affected by the financial crisis – and subsequent cohorts.

It found that fewer graduates from 2007-08 were employed in professional roles than the previous year’s cohort, and that unemployment also increased.

For the following year’s graduates, while the professional employment rate (which includes further study) fell, the unemployment rate increased by only 1 percentage point. Graduates took jobs in non-professional employment, and also went onto postgraduate study.

The recent Wakeham Review of STEM graduate employability highlighted how particular industries were more affected than others by both the state of national and global economies, and particular financial markets.

Recruitment activity in the oil and gas industries, for example, often mirrors fluctuating market prices.

But rather than choose an alternative career path, the review also found that many graduates preferred to wait until jobs became available so they could pursue their chosen career. This could mean that they found interim, albeit non-graduate, employment.

What other factors make a difference?

As we have seen, the IER research highlights that subject, choice of institution, degree classification, and type of work experience all had an impact on the length of time that graduates from both cohorts spent in non-graduate jobs.

A further HEFCE report looks at differences in the employment outcomes of graduates. This found that, in both the 2008-09 and 2010-11 cohorts, men were more likely to be in professional employment, but that women had higher overall employment rates.

It revealed higher rates of professional employment among white graduates compared with graduates from minority ethnicities, particularly 40 months (or 3.5 years) after graduation.

It also found that graduates from the most advantaged backgrounds have substantially higher professional employment rates than those from the least advantaged backgrounds.

The Shadbolt Review conducted a similar analysis of the employment outcomes of different types of computer sciences graduates. This showed familiar trends to those found across all HE graduates but also emphasised that mobility – moving to find a job – affects how many graduates find graduate-level employment.

What do graduates think?

But what about the graduates themselves?

Some graduates from the classes of 2009 and 2010 included in the IER report spoke of being stuck in non-graduate jobs. They became increasingly frustrated about their lack of progression, and even questioned their choices about higher education.

This affected their wellbeing, confidence, and created the perception that they were ‘out of date’ compared to ‘fresh’ graduates.

Many of these graduates who were working in non-graduate jobs at the final stage of the original study (in 2011 and 2012 respectively) also said that work experience during higher education or afterwards would have helped.

The Shadbolt Review reiterated the value of work experience. It showed that many graduates who had not found graduate-level roles, had passed up the opportunity to go on placements as undergraduates – a decision they later regretted.

The Wakeham and Shadbolt Reviews also recommended that employers need to work together with universities and colleges to produce graduates with the skills to meet the demands of employers. But graduates in the IER report, the Shadbolt and Wakeham Review reports all spoke about the reluctance of employers to take on individuals without work experience.

Degree apprenticeships – which combine on-the-job training with the academic rigour of a degree or master’s programme – may provide one answer to meeting the immediate and medium-term skills needs of employers. However, the evidence still points to shared responsibility for graduate employment outcomes and employability between students, graduates, employers, universities and colleges.