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In January I wrote a blog with my views on the current and future graduate employment market. You can read it here. I am pleased to say that there certainly have been more jobs for students and graduates, and things are definitely heading in the right direction, but there remains uncertainty in some areas. And consideration needs to be given to whether short-term measures continue in the long-term.

The benefits of experience

For various reasons, there is a lack of experienced candidates in many sectors.

Graduates can often be an excellent alternative where experienced candidates are not available. The problem can be where the line gets blurred, and related work experience is made essential. Sometimes it can be a case of looking to get the experience on the cheap, but it shouldn’t work like that – it’s either a graduate role or it’s not.

In some sectors it has not been an issue this year. For example, a Chemical Engineering role I recruited for in June, where 40 of the applicants (who applied to me, or who I sourced) had completed a year-in-industry work placement. This was largely due to the reduced number of graduate opportunities, meaning that more graduates with experience from internships and sandwich placements are looking for work.

This year many of the graduates I have placed in jobs had some kind of related experience, from a placement or internship, and I have to say that they often really do stand out from the hundreds of applications. Unfortunately many students were not able to get this experience last year and this due to cancellations of internships and placements- hopefully this was a temporary issue.

Clearly, those with related experience will always hold a big advantage, but it doesn’t mean that the majority of graduates who do not have relevant experience are not in contention- far from it. It just means that they need to shine in other ways. And the graduates who do have the experience still need to prove that they are the best person for the position at interview.

So where the feedback is that someone was not successful with an application due to not having industry experience, it could just mean that someone who had done a placement was successful.

Is the bar set too high?

In some sectors, for example Computer Science related roles, there are not a lot of graduates available who do have this work experience: not all courses offer it, and graduates with experience are often already in work, or can take their pick of offers.

Equally, there are some skills and areas of knowledge that will not always be taught at university, or on specific courses. A Head of Computing at a leading university put it well when he explained to me years ago that universities provide a broad base to build on: they can’t teach everything, so they focus on some key areas, and specialism can come during training in the graduate role.

Either way,  there are many graduates who are strong in areas of knowledge, enthusiasm, and communication, but who haven’t had the opportunity of getting related experience. In many cases these are being ruled out automatically, but I feel this a mistake.

One of the reasons may be that the business can’t be sure how they will adapt to the specific workplace environment. In most cases it can pay to trust your instinct and what you have got from the interview. But for the more cautious, other solutions can be found. For example use of internships / placements to see how the graduate gets on, with the option of a permanent role if all goes well.

I know of employers who have been looking for experienced candidates for months, waiting for someone who may not exist; others took a chance on a less-experienced graduate and have been richly rewarded. Employers will need to invest some time in training, developing, and supporting them, but if done properly this will be paid back in many ways.

Of course, many graduates will have already demonstrated a work-ethic and suitability for the workplace through non-vocational work. In terms of general work experience, I feel that all experience is valuable. While many of these jobs were decimated by the pandemic, they are largely back now. And many students and graduates adapted and did roles related to Covid testing for example, which is great to see.

One thing is for certain- when a good candidate is available, employers need to move quickly before they get snapped up elsewhere. Sadly some businesses are still losing out on candidates due to delays in making decisions or arranging interviews – in some cases it can be weeks. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but often it isn’t. It needs to be remembered that recruitment is a two-way process. It also gives the applicants a very bad impression of the business.

Applications

I have been in recruitment for 16 years, and each year it seems that a new recruitment process is launched and hailed as a game-changer; often without full experience with, and knowledge of how the recruitment process works – certainly from the employer / recruiter side. In many cases they relate to graduate employment. In truth, most are similar to ones that were previously attempted but did not take off. Some are more innovative than others, but may be best suited to a particular niche.

I do believe that, while it is not perfect, the CV/ screening / interview process is still the most practical and suitable for most employers. Certainly the majority of SMEs, where speed can be crucial. It also does not unnecessarily complicate things for the many harder-to-fill roles, where a good recruiter will be proactively looking for the right candidates, who are not readily available.

While there may be some tweaks to the process, I can’t see this changing significantly in the short to medium term.

There are currently a lot of graduates who are looking for work, and I am generally receiving dozens to hundreds of applications for each role (I also do a lot of proactive work to source more).  The quality varies hugely: some stand out; others will struggle to get a graduate role without making key changes to their approach. It’s not always easy to assess the commitment and suitability of all applicants, but it’s something that I have a lot of experience in, and is a key part of the service that I offer to employers.

It’s not an easy time for a lot of these graduates, but it’s important to bear in mind that applications need to be relevant and focused- particularly for those areas where there is a lot of competition. There is lots of free advice available on my website with tips on how students and graduates can increase their chances of being successful. And there is a lot of support available from universities; not all students and graduates make use of this, but they should: an appointment with a careers advisor can be hugely beneficial.

Working from home

Working from home has been a very contentious issue, with many employees now seeing it as virtually a right, but others wanting to be back in the office. There may never be a satisfactory solution for all,  but one of the key things that needs to be considered is the potential effect on graduates and other young team-members. Though the importance can vary across industry sectors- for example, technical IT, or research related roles would generally be more suited to working from home than commercial / sales.

I mentioned in the blog that it would be difficult to organise onboarding, training, and development. But many businesses coped admirably, as did the graduates. However they may be missing out in many ways, for example just being around more experienced staff with little things brushing off on them, and also in terms of camaraderie and teamwork. This needs to be considered carefully going forward.

A more worrying knock-on effect has been that many employers have cited working from home as a reason why student internships and placements did not go ahead. If this trend continues it will mean less of these very valuable opportunities, with a weakened graduate pipeline for the business. It will also perhaps mean that these businesses are tempted to go for experience when they have a vacancy, which will no doubt have negative effects in terms of succession planning, fresh ideas, and diversity. As well as fewer opportunities for graduates.

Interested in hearing more about the graduate employment market, or possibly hiring a graduate? Please contact me on 0370 7749500 (local rate number) or email matthew@sme-graduates.co.uk