Education, education, internship

On Nov 03, 2015

Early targeting of graduate talent only way to overcome skills shortage in key sectors.

The career prospects for graduates leaving university are at the highest since their pre-2007 recession peak, with a quarter of employers planning to increase their graduate intake in 2015. At the same time, the graduate unemployment rate is continuing to fall, standing at 7.8% in 2015 compared to 9.1% in 2014. Reading this and you would be forgiven for thinking that all is good both for employers and graduates alike. However, scratch beneath the surface and an altogether picture emerges.

Indeed, almost 1 in 5 (19%) of graduates who left university in the last 12 months are currently working in non-graduate jobs – a figure that has increased 10% since 2004. Take a closer look at certain sectors and the story becomes even more worrying.

There are more than 20,000 unfilled graduate vacancies in the software industry, yet the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggests there are currently 30,500 students studying computer science. Similarly, the Royal Academy of Engineering says the UK needs more than one million new engineers and technicians by 2020 – double current levels. Again, this is despite a 16.4% increase in engineering graduates over the last 10 years.

So why, despite an increase in the number of people going to university to study and acquire the knowledge that the economy needs, are employers continuing to struggle to fill their roles? The answer may be what happens when students are at university. In 1997 Tony Blair led the Labour Party to election victory under the rallying call Education, Education, Education, with the classroom placed at the top of the political agenda. With the government spending £1.2bn on education every week during Mr Blair’s decade-long tenure, the focus was firmly fixed on improving Britain’s standards in education and to a great extent it worked.

Indeed, earlier this year Ucas reported record number of students applying to university, with as many as 1 in 5 students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to higher education courses.

However, whilst breaking down the barriers to education and encouraging more young people to go to university is to be welcome, and indeed applauded, it is what they do – or rather don’t do – when they are there which is of most concern.

Research published in the High Fliers Report 2015 earlier this year found that almost half of all employers repeated their warning that “graduates who have had no previous work experience at all are unlikely to be successful during the selection process and have little or no chance of receiving a job offer for their organisations’ graduate programmes.”

Work experience may be a drum that has been banged since time immemorial, but it is a message that still struggles to be heard – or rather, actioned upon. Universities have long been the subject of much criticism in terms of failing to adequately provide sound careers support for graduates that is real-world practical. And to an extent this criticism is certainly warranted.

That said, much of the onus must surely be on employers too. After all, they are the ones who are embroiled in the ever-increasingly ‘war for talent’ so it is they who should take the lead in helping to nurture and develop the next generation of workers before they graduate rather than waiting until after they complete their studies.

Yes the job market is improving and there are evidently more new opportunities for graduates; as we have already seen, demand for graduates is on the up. The difficulty that employers have is the lack of experience and practical know-how for the job in hand. That’s where interns come into their own.

Employers are clambering over themselves to attract the best graduate talent to their organisations and savvy employers are those who identify the best talent long before that talent comes onto the market. By offering students paid internships they get invaluable insight into how well a candidate could perform if they were to be offered the role as a graduate trainee.

This approach can be invaluable. Ever since the recession employers have worked hard to keep their cost per hire to a minimum without compromising their ability to find, attract, and secure the best talent available. By finding that talent before they graduate employers can secure their services and keep their recruitment costs down whilst ensuring they don’t lose ground to their competitors who may pip them to the post if that graduate became free on the open market as it were.

Irrespective of whether a graduate has attended a red brick, Russell Group university or not their chances of securing a role in a career they really want are minimal if they lack suitable work experience - this is what employers really need. Gone are the days when employers looked to hire fresh-faced graduates based on their potential to do a good job, they now want to see proof that a candidate really does have what it takes.

Undergraduates need to take ownership of their careers long before they even leave university, but both the university careers services and industry need to take a steer in supporting their development to ensure they are equipped with the skills that are sorely needed.

Early work experiences are critical predictors to future career outcomes – get it right and young people, employers and the wider economy will greatly benefit.

(This article is originally written for the New Statesman on 2 October 2015.)

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