Qualified excess

They’ve spent thousands on university. Yet more students than ever are taking on jobs for which they are over-qualified.

Increasing numbers of graduates are doing jobs for which they are over-qualified. Latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show ever more graduates taking up secretarial and clerical positions. And rising numbers are entering unskilled retail work.

For the first time in six years, graduate unemployment is rising. Having remained stable since 1998, last year it rose from 5 per cent to 6 per cent, with 14,000 graduates out of work six months after leaving university.

A recent poll of more than 200 major graduate recruiters at a conference of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, showed that most believe the increased number of graduates does not equal quality, and only 38 per cent agreed that UK universities are producing the right skills for employment. Nearly half felt the UK is simply producing too many graduates.

Added to this, graduates disguise their unemployment by simply staying on at university to do further courses. The numbers doing this has recently risen from 19 per cent to 20 per cent, according to the HESA.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, student Louise Holly admitted the reason she was taking a masters degree in international relations was because she couldn’t get a job. Ironically, given her choice of further degree, she also recognised that qualifications in marketing and accounting are the ones that employers were looking out for the most. Despite this evidence, she felt that a further qualification would help her get into the Foreign Office, where she had failed to before.

Finding the right fit

Between the ages of 20-24, two in five graduates are in non-graduate jobs. This goes down to one in five by the age of 29, and less than one in 10 by the age of 35. So many graduates pass through jobs they are actually over-qualified to do before landing real graduate work.

However, it can also go the other way. Recently, 41-year-old molecular biologist Dr Karl Gensburg from Walsall achieved his 15 minutes of fame in the national media by signing on as a gas fitter to increase his salary.

He pointed out some other examples in his PhD year, who are now running a scuba diving school and a holiday lettings business, while one is now working as a photographer. Some also become full-time parents. Typically, they may do this for several years and then come back into employment at a non-graduate level.

Dr Luke Pittaway, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Lancaster University, has carried out a study of graduate experiences in small and medium-sized businesses. Mind the Gap, graduate recruitment in small businesses, surveyed 150 companies in the leisure and tourism sector. Pittaway says: “Although most graduates are initially employed at non-graduate levels, there are two very distinct groups. The small firm that is growing fast is very positive about employing graduates in non-graduate roles. They see their upgrading process as part of their growth force. The firm and the graduate grow together.

“However, there are many more small firms who are not growing who see the employment of graduates as a waste of time. There is a big difference in working for a small growing firm of 50 people and working for one that isn’t growing which only employs 10. In the smaller, stable company, the owner-manager tends to do all the graduate work himself,” he adds.

Changing attitudes

Janet Mcglaughlin is operations director of Pertemps, the 200-branch recruitment agency which has 1,800 staff and sends out 25,000 permanent and part-time workers into the market place every week. She says: “The attitude to graduates has changed over the past 10 years. A lot of degrees are pretty soft in vocational terms. What organisations are looking for is drive and commitment which will translate into value. That does not come automatically with a degree.

“Nevertheless, more of our work does require a level of education and understanding because of legislation, and so on,” she adds. “However, five years ago, we did try a graduate recruitment scheme for our managers, but we gave it up because we found it made no difference.”

But not all graduates want graduate work. London Transport reports that it has around a dozen graduates working among its 3,000 train drivers. When these ex-teachers, nurses and bank executives were asked why they had moved into such work, they replied that they found their previous work soul-destroying, badly paid and not as flexible when it came to working hours.

For HR managers, do graduates in non-graduate jobs represent an asset or a problem? Is it good to have well-educated operatives at lower levels, or are they bitter, angry and more trouble than they are worth?

Mike Hill, chief executive of graduate recruitment agency Graduate Prospects, says: “Research over the past 25 years has been remarkably consistent. It shows that eventually 90 per cent of graduates get graduate jobs, even with the increasing population – although the rise in numbers is reflected in a narrowing differential between their wages and the rest of the population.

“In small and medium-sized companies where many graduates doing non-graduate work start their careers, opportunities exist and are spotted both by management and the graduate. Many graduates don’t know what they want to do when they leave university, and that is no bad thing.”

In major organisations which graduates find desirable, such as the BBC, many are not put off by the lack of graduate training positions. They join in clerical and other non-graduate positions in the hope that being on the inside will give them a better chance of either moving up through the ranks, or being in the right place at the right time when vacancies appear.

The BBC claims that although graduates abound throughout its highly-skilled organisation, they now only have a graduate recruitment policy for highly technical roles. Roger Hammett, BBC’s head of recruitment communication, says: “Just as graduates need to review their own currency in the job market, recruiters need to look at recruitment in a broader, more creative and holistic way if they are to maintain a competitive edge.”

Needless to say, having no graduate recruitment policy has not dampened graduates’ enthusiasm for the UK’s leading media organisation.

Carl Gilleard, director of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, says: “Since the number of graduates is increasing at a faster rate than the economy, it’s obvious that more and more will have to start their careers in non-graduate jobs. What is interesting, is that most eventually find their right level. As the competition hots up for the best graduates, it may be that some recruiters would benefit from widening their nets to include those who have missed out on the first and second drafts.”

Nick Cole of Capital Consulting says: “Many [non-graduates] are finding a non-standard route into management. It is also true that many companies are encouraging graduates to do other things for a year or two before they join.”

Understanding working life

The recruitment manager of a major brewery, who wished to remain anonymous, says he preferred to recruit graduates in their second or third jobs, as by then they have not only started to work out how the real world works, but have also gotten into the rhythms and disciplines of working life.

The success of the Teach First scheme supports this view. Leading blue-chip employers in the UK – including Unilever, HSBC, Amex, EMI and BA – view graduates who spend two years teaching in secondary schools as having enhanced their career and employment prospects.

Graduates in non-graduate jobs are usually travelling through a variety of experiences hoping to find something or someone to spark their inspiration. But whatever job they end up doing, they will pick up new skills, which could be viewed as a DIY training scheme. After all, many graduate training programmes take would-be managers through a series of low-level experiences in various departments. At the end, the trainees will not only understand the business, but will also hopefully have shown some specialist aptitude as well.

HR tips for using graduates in non-graduate roles

  • Most graduates are looking for a way up through the ranks. Being appreciated, part of a team and getting feedback always scores higher on job satisfaction research than wages

  • After university, different individuals take different lengths of time to work out their position and ambitions in the workplace

  • As more graduates enter the workforce, competition for the top jobs will increase and an ever higher percentage will not make it to the very top. Managing expectations will become more of a priority

  • The more variety you give the graduate, the greater the chance that they will find the area that sparks them off

  • Don’t think in terms of graduate and non-graduate, just think in terms of suitability

  • Some graduates don’t want responsibility

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