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Getting the degree was the easy bit

Life for graduates is increasingly difficult and Billy MacInnes discovers that some are starting to wonder if it's not better to just get involved with the IT industry at the earliest opportunity

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: MicroScope: MicroScope: May 2017:

I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to be shocked, surprised, frustrated, annoyed, or all four by research which reports 41% of UK graduates fail to secure graduate-level jobs after university and half are “clueless on how to secure a role emerging from the last decade”.

The research by Intern Tech also revealed a quarter of graduates regretted going to university as a waste of time and money and 28% thought their university courses were “outdated” when it came to trying to find a job in today’s market.

I have to confess that I wasn’t surprised by the news so many graduates were failing to secure graduate-level jobs. This is a trend that has already become noticeable in the US to the point where people are starting to question whether it makes sense to burden themselves with substantial debts to go to university and graduate to a job flipping burgers.

But could most of the disappointment be due to a misconception of what a graduate level job is or should be? The fact is more and more people are going to university and they're paying more and more for the privilege (according to one report, children born in the US today could end up paying $120,000 a year to go to college in 18 years time). But are they getting a return on their investment?

A lot of them clearly aren’t. This is partly due to an absurd distortionary inflation in the education market where because more people are going to university (up from 12% in 1979 to 48% in 2015), more employers are stipulating that prospective employees should have a degree as a base qualification, irrespective of whether the job requires one or not. This has led to a phenomenon of graduates “colonising” jobs in certain areas that used to be filled by school-leavers, highlighted in an article in The Guardian in October last year.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) argued the government should stop pushing more and more people into higher education because it was no longer justified by the level of student debt and the jobs they ended up with.

It listed several examples where graduates had ended up in jobs that had been the preserve of school-leavers in 1979. More than a third of bank and post office clerks today have degrees (compared to around 3% in 1979), 44% of police officers entering the force at the rank of sergeant or below have a university qualification (2% in 1979) and 41% in property, housing and estate management have a degree (3.6% in 1979).

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese told The Guardian: “We need a much stronger focus on creating more high-quality alternative pathways into the workplace, such as higher level apprenticeships.”

He said that many graduates were in roles which did not meet their career expectations, while non-gradates were “being overlooked for jobs just because they have not got a degree, even if a degree is not needed to do the job”.

Cheese argued the situation was “bad for employers and the economy” because the qualification and skills mismatch was “associated with lower levels of employee engagement and loyalty, and will undermine attempts to boost productivity”.

Given the qualification and skills mismatch it should come as no surprise that 45% of graduates told Intern Tech internships and work placements had been more valuable to them in their career than their degree. I would hazard a guess that many of these graduates were probably in careers that would have been better suited to an on-the-job employer apprenticeship than a university education.

Which brings us to another anomaly in the current education market. With so many young people going to university, the burden has shifted from employers to provide the training and learning necessary for their future employees onto the workers themselves. Most employers have been only too happy to wriggle out of any responsibility they might have to train their employees and get them to pay for it themselves.

The problem is that a university education is bound to be more generic and wide-ranging than learning on the job at a specific firm, although many of those same employers are only too happy to whinge and moan that graduates aren’t coming out with the skills to plug the specific gaps they have in their organisation.

In IT, this situation is exacerbated by what is, to all intents and purposes, an artificially constructed divide that forces employees to take specialist accreditations and develop skills in a vendor-defined version of a specific technology area. It is illogical to expect universities to produce graduates that are ready to fill those narrowly-defined skills gaps because it would entail them having to become accredited for nearly every vendor’s product set (which could take forever) or force them to severely restrict their choices. In any case, even if you constructed a university degree to plug today's skills gap, it might not best match the skills shortages when the student graduates in three years time.

Intern Tech is quick to highlight the value of internships. “Today’s survey underpins the immense value of internships, which must be encouraged,” says managing director, Aaron Wilson, “they provide young people with vital insight and experience into the jobs and industries they wish to work in. With university education criticised for being outdated, it is essential that students and graduates are encouraged to get hands-on work experience, in turn enabling companies to find potential employees with the culture, attitude and core skills they require.”

Which is true but there is a huge difference between unpaid internships and apprenticeships Unpaid internships are another example of employers shifting the cost onto the employee, either as a way to fill low-level jobs that offer no useful training at all without having to pay them or as a means of getting apprentices for nothing.

Right now, we’re in an unsustainable situation where too many young people are paying too much to try and make themselves “more employable” in the future workplace and too many employees are trying to pay too little to secure the future workers they need.

This was last published in March 2017

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