Employers are slashing graduate jobs. But students mustn’t lose hope

Will there be 50 or 50,000 fewer graduate jobs this year? There is little about the immediate future that is certain, but what we do know already is that employers are already planning to cut graduate vacancies by 12%.

And the internships and placements that lead to next year’s job offers? Down by 40%. If they haven’t been cancelled, they have been delayed or switched to virtual experiences. One other thing is certain: this year is going to be a tough year for job-hunting students.

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But for those who are worried about the emergence of a “lost generation”, there are glimmers of hope. In the slump of 2008/9, our annual survey at the Institute of Student Employers showed that many employers reported unfilled science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) and digital vacancies. Right now, many recruiters are still hiring graduates across a far broader range of industries. A quick search of the major graduate job boards throws up vacancies for trainee project managers, teachers, marketeers and software developers. Many employers know that if they prune student hiring too harshly, business growth could stall come the upturn.

Interviews haven’t been as impacted as you might think, either. Video was replacing the face-to-face interview long before Covid-19 reached our shores. Office suites may be empty but candidates are filling Zoom rooms to undertake group assessments. Equally, many employers are rebuilding their internships into shorter, virtual experiences that combine online projects, web-based learning courses and mentoring. Others are planning to run shorter programmes in September or December.

But “stay positive” is all too easy to say. Despite what future labour market statistics might report, the lived experience of many students is going to be tough. This crisis will hold an unforgiving mirror up to universities which are not investing in the employability of their students. They need to support this year’s graduating cohort who could be hurtling towards a labour market cliff edge.

Students who think flexibly will fare better. Some sectors, like logistics, are booming whilst others, like leisure, are slumping. And within industries, robust companies can stand firm whilst those with weaker foundations crumble. Unlike in other countries, UK employers do not recruit by degree discipline: our annual student recruitment survey 2019 showed that 86% of employers do not care what a student studied. University careers advisors can help students to understand their talents and the wide range of career options open to them. Every large company needs accountants, so careers in finance exist outside of London’s Square Mile.

Methods of recruitment – application forms, interviews, assessment centres – are not changing but employers are deploying them differently. This means that students need to get comfortable with the relevant technology by setting up practice online interviews and assessments.

Recruiters seek talent online, so students should build searchable profiles on platforms like LinkedIn. Careers fairs may be about to become relics of the milk round age, so students need to do research on employer review sites like Glassdoor.

Many of these practices are long-term trends accelerated by coronavirus. Even though broadband can falter, interviews and assessments are delivered faster and more economically online. Employers won’t revert to labour intensive methods as business returns to normal.

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Now to the tricky subject of the master’s option. Students looking for something to do will turn to universities keen to fill rooms left vacant as international students stay at home. Whilst some career paths require and reward masters study, many do not. Most employers are ambivalent towards a CV with an MSc attached. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the pursuit of postgraduate study for the love of learning, if students are making an informed investment decision. Let’s not create higher education’s version of a PPI scandal.

As the world teeters on its axis, it’s easy to forget that the economy could rebound relatively quicklyand the jobs market will recover. In the face of so much uncertainty, it might be tempting for students to bury their heads under the duvet and assume recruiters have stopped recruiting. But these are the students whose careers will suffer the greatest downturn.

  • Stephen Isherwood is the chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers

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