In January 2021, I predicted how the SME graduate employment market may develop over the coming year. There was great uncertainty at that stage, and a lot depended on when (or if) the pandemic was brought under control. Some areas I covered included: concern over how many employers would recruit graduates; a reduction in internships and placements for undergraduates, and in traditional non-vocational work experience such as bar work; the growing trend of working from home, particularly in relation to training and mentoring of new graduate hires; and the use of online methods such as Teams and Zoom in the interview process.
All of these factors had an impact, but the main positive to report is that there has been an increase in the number of graduate roles, though the competition for the best graduates means that many have been unfilled, or have taken longer to fill. Time will tell how many graduate roles there are over the year, and how much of an impact the predicted rise in inflation rates will have. And of course the ongoing situation with Covid.
So, how did the other areas develop, and what can we expect for 2022?
THE GREAT RESIGNATION?
There has been a lot of talk about the ‘Great Resignation’ but the industries that have suffered most have often been ones where conditions have not always been well-paid, nor conducive to a good work-life balance; for example, retail and hospitality. These are also industries where students have traditionally gained work experience, though a lot did miss out during the pandemic.
For a variety of reasons, many other industries have seen a lack of experienced candidates who are available and looking for work. This has seen businesses go out of their way to keep existing staff; for example, reportedly huge counter-offers being made (and accepted). This has resulted in many vacancies for experienced staff remaining unfilled. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues.
A lot of businesses have taken on graduates as an alternative when they were unable to find an experienced person, and this can work very well. It has meant that there has been a lot of competition for the strongest graduates, and most have found a good role. Many businesses have been looking for some industry related experience from the graduate – though asking for much more than a years’ experience means is not really a graduate job. And in many industry sectors there are not a lot of graduates available who have been able to get any industry related experience, as less have had the opportunity to get it. There are some around who do have experience, and I have often found these for employers. But they generally have a lot of offers, and most are already in work.
Making this experience essential can often result in the role remaining unfilled. Sometimes there are reasons why it is essential, but it can be worth considering a compromise if possible. Other employers have done this, and taken on a graduate without the experience, but who has shown their suitability in other ways. Yes, they may require a bit more training, but the employers have been richly rewarded in return.
A prediction I made last year was that at some point there would be an increase in graduate vacancies, and graduates would need to be ready to start applying when this happened. Many did, and found work. Others did not, and are still not actively looking.
For now, the number and quality of graduates that are available can vary significantly across different industry sectors; for example, Computing, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical Engineering graduates are in short supply. One of the methods I use to source graduates for roles is the use of paid access to job boards; these are generally a good barometer of how the market is looking, and for many sectors the number and quality are way down, even on pre-pandemic numbers in many cases.
There may be several reasons for this. Some graduates made the decision to study for further qualifications instead of looking for work, for example a Masters or PhD (30% according to a recent survey by the CareerPass Network). Unfortunately, some others lost focus and assumed no jobs would be available, and stopped looking. And some deferred their job search and decided to do other things, due to missing out on a lot of fun during the pandemic; particularly what they would normally have had as part of their university life. I can understand the reasons for this, but would urge caution, as in a few months there will be more graduates who are available and looking for work, and who may then be in pole-position.
I am very interested to see how the 2022 leavers approach the search for jobs: will more be actively looking, or will the above trends continue?
There can still be a lot of competition for many graduate roles; and even if there is less competition there is still a level of expectation and standards that are required. It’s important to make the most of available advice and support to increase the chances of being successful with applications. There are still a lot of applications coming through for graduate roles, many of a very good quality and I have generally been able to find excellent graduates for the businesses I work with. But a lot of other applications have been badly constructed, and some applicants have not demonstrated enthusiasm or even interest when getting back with information, returning calls, or discussing the role. This has always been an issue to some extent, but I do wonder about how much of an impact the lack of face-to-face contact over the last couple of years has had. A lot of university contact, including lectures, was moved online, and this does not do students any favours in preparing for working life, particularly in regard to communication skills. It was initially an essential solution to keep going, but it now needs to be addressed going forward – and I am hearing that a lot has been moving back to normal.
Sadly, many will struggle to get a graduate position, and the first bit of advice I give graduates in this situation is to get in contact with their university careers service to book an appointment for careers advice (and also access the free advice available on my website). Many university careers services have historically found it difficult to engage with a proportion of students and graduates. There are many reasons for this, and without face-to-face contact it must be even harder. But the support is there, and ultimately the onus is on the student or graduate to make the most of it.
Many students and graduates may have experienced a negative impact on their mental health as a result of the pandemic and the knock-on effects on their education and all that usually goes with being at university. It is important that they receive support and encouragement, and again this can be accessed through their university.
Many of the traditional non-vocational ways that students gained work experience have taken a big hit at times during the pandemic. Some students and graduates were still able to get work experience, for example in Covid testing related roles, and this was great to see. The roles in hospitality, retail, etc are more readily available now so more students will be able to again use these to gain valuable experience, and develop a range of skills that are required in the workplace.
Many employers who previously hosted students in vocational work internships and placements have now not done so for 2 years, and some are not planning to do so this year. It’s a real shame, as not only have they lost a valuable talent pipeline that they had built up year on year, but the students themselves have missed out on these hugely valuable sources of experience (I am hearing reports from students that lots are looking for a placement). Hopefully they will resume this in the future, but the longer it goes on the less likely it may be, as the momentum has been lost.
Some employers have hosted virtual internships, but it’s not the same- and they can vary in the actual work that has been done. There is no substitute for being in an office, and learning the aspects of work that cannot be found online. For example, just being around more experienced people, and picking up on things. Those that have had the opportunity to do an internship or placement have found it to be a huge advantage- and many have then had their pick of graduate roles.
Many students and graduates have developed new skills in other ways (24% taking up a ‘side hustle’ such as their own micro-business, and 53% taking up a new hobby. Some combining the two). Anyone doing this needs to make sure they add it to their CV, as they will have developed a range of employability related skills.
The use of online interviewing has continued, and offers a great way to get interviews done quickly, with greater flexibility on time slots. But even then it is generally important to get something arranged in the office too. This means that it can become a two stage-process (which is something I have always advised against where possible). Some employers have missed out on candidates due to delays in the process, and candidates getting other offers. I think this is a trend that will continue, as the stronger candidates remain in demand. So, it is important to make sure the process is not delayed, and it may be worth considering whether the initial online meeting is needed- or at the least, make sure the 2nd interview is soon afterwards. Recruitment is a two-way process.
WORKING FROM HOME
There is no doubt that this is here to stay now, though of course it will never be an option for many roles, where staff need to be present in the business premises. For many who have worked from home, it may now be difficult to go back into the office full-time, as so many staff (and Directors) have got used to it; for those who have been used to a commute it really does feel liberating in many ways. And there has often been a hugely beneficial effect on work/life balance.
Some employers have embraced working from home fully; others have expressed concern to me, and would rather have staff in the office full-time, particularly as not all employees have the facilities, or in some cases discipline, to work from home fully effectively. And the impact on customer service needs to be taken into account. For example, many businesses are still not able to transfer calls internally when people are working from home.
I have previously expressed concern about the possible effects on training and supervision of graduates (though in my experience the businesses that I have placed students and graduates with have managed this aspect very well, during what was a very difficult time). I also had concerns about a reduction in trainee roles (it can sometimes be the easy option to simply go for experience), and sadly I know of cases where this has happened.
The CareerPass survey found that around a third of graduates are worried that remote working will make them feel isolated, and that it may have a negative impact on training and development. This is something that needs to be taken into account when developing a work from home policy.
Having said that, around a quarter of respondents expressed concern that businesses won’t offer flexible or remote working. So, clearly it is not straightforward, and individuals have different preferences. Just as more experienced staff do. Balancing this can be tricky. And it’s important to make sure that graduates and other younger team-members who are from a lower socio-economic background are not disadvantaged. They may not always have the luxury of a good environment to work from, nor the required infrastructure. On the other hand, if they do go into the office but others are allowed to work from home, they will also lose out in terms of commuting cost compared to those colleagues.
It’s a situation that needs to be managed carefully, with a fair outcome for all. The hybrid model offers a compromise and still seems the best way going forward – though even then there is sometimes debate on whether it should be 3 days in the office, or 3 days at home.
Director. SME Graduate Employment
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