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October 11, 2016
Helping your students find to work: A new differentiator in higher education
By: Lydia Tallant

They might have good grades – but are your students employable?

In a recent poll, more than half of the graduate employers surveyed deemed their prospective candidates "not work ready." Finding work after university is not just about having good grades…in an increasingly competitive labour market, employers seek graduates who can demonstrate basic attributes such as communication, punctuality and teamwork. In 2015, the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce declared that graduates often lacked the personal skills, awareness and basic self-discipline that is essential in the workplace. Employers expect universities to implement the attitudes and behaviours that can help graduates to transition from education to employment.

Even for the most enthusiastic graduate, the movement into work can be difficult, and often overwhelming for young people who have never been in employment, or had little work experience. It is challenging to adapt to a working environment if it does not meet initial expectations. The Accenture Strategy 2016 UK University Graduate Employment Study highlights a significant difference between the expectations of new university graduates, and the more disappointing experiences of recent graduates who have been in the workplace for a year or two.

What is the reality?

2016’s university graduates are entering the workforce with confidence and great expectations about their careers. They believe themselves to be ready, willing and able. They expect to find meaningful, relevant work and are hopeful about working within an organisational culture that is stimulating and enjoyable.

However, graduates who entered the workforce in 2014 or 2015, now feel underemployed. Only 51 percent of 2014/2015 graduates are employed full time, and 49 percent of those who did find jobs have already left or intend to leave within the next two years. It seems that there is a pressing need for universities to provide students with a more enhanced level of careers support prior to graduation, to adequately prepare them for the realities of the working world.

What is the responsibility of the institution when it comes to careers preparation?

Universities are not responsible for securing jobs for their students, but they do have a vested interest in ensuring their graduates successfully move into satisfactory employment and can maintain alumni relationships.

All universities provide careers services, however, research suggested that the proportion of final year students who visited their university's careers service had dropped in 2013 to 58 percent, down from 67 percent in 2003. Some have argued the case of making careers sessions compulsory, which could potentially support the less proactive students.

With mounting pressure to supply employable young people, more and more universities are investing in their careers services to better engage with students and prepare them as best as they can for the working world. 75 percent of new graduates this year now believe that their education has prepared them well for the workplace.

Prepared for the workplace… but then what?

According to Accenture research, 86 percent of new graduates think that they will find a job in their sector of study. The labour market appears to have dictated university degree choices—four in five graduates say that they considered the availability of jobs before deciding on their university course. When it comes to STEM subjects, 59 percent of students cite ‘profitable careers and job opportunities’ as the key drivers for pursuing that path.

However, 46 percent of currently employed graduates think that their job does not match their degree. This suggests that universities need to work with students to understand their expectations and provide informed guidance based on a deep understanding of the job market.

Conclusion: Balancing hope and hard truths

As competition for top students’ increases, universities will need to differentiate on the basis of helping their students to find appropriate jobs. Universities can help students to bridge the gap between career expectations and reality in the following ways:

  1. Set expectations in marketing materials and communications that address the true value proposition of certain degrees.

  2. Be clear about possible career paths for different degrees in the first year of study, not the last.

  3. Consider organising student support and career services by 'industry' rather than by 'degree topic' to enhance the transition from study to work.

  4. Help students to set goals and improve outcomes so they are more likely to achieve their expectations.

  5. Work with companies, communities and government agencies to understand what is required for certain jobs, and build these factors into the curriculum.

  6. Be willing to change to meet changing needs and have a clear view of the transferable skills needed to be attractive to employers.

Businesses have highlighted the need to strengthen student’s skills and build better links between the education sector and the public/private sectors that employ university graduates. Matching the evolution of the curriculum with the evolution of labour market demands and greater careers engagement with students will ultimately create graduates that are ready for work.

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