Graduates enjoying better job prospects and wages

New graduates from Australia’s 39 universities have improved job prospects with higher wages than those their unlucky predecessors experienced four years earlier, according to a new survey.

In contrast to 2014, one of the worst years on record for new graduates in Australia, those leaving university in 2018 had a far greater chance of finding employment in good jobs with more pay.

This is one finding from the latest Graduate Outcomes Survey of 2018 graduates, taken four months after they had left university.

The results, released on 11 January, show that more than 70% of 2018 graduates were in full-time work by May that year, a proportion that jumped to 87% for those with postgraduate coursework qualifications.

Previous surveys have shown that a university graduate’s success rate at finding a job in a relevant field increases to 90% in the three years following graduation.

The latest figures on graduate employment contrast sharply with the dire situation new graduates faced in 2014, when nearly a third were still unemployed four months after obtaining their degrees.

The overall graduate employment rate slowly increased as the Australian economy picked up and has shown a slight rise from 86.5% in 2017 to 87% in 2018.

These encouraging ratios, however, are also markedly lower than new graduates enjoyed 30 and more years ago.

In 1980, for example, 90% of Australians with their first degree were in full-time work soon after leaving university, a proportion that did not drop below 70% until 2014 when it dipped to 67%.

The number of successful newcomers to the graduate job market then began rising again as the national economy slowly recovered – although not to the heights reached late last century.


“Full-time graduate employment rates have fluctuated significantly over the past 35 years. These fluctuations coincide with major shocks to the Australian economy, during recessions of the 1980s, 1990s and after the global financial crisis of 2008,” says Dr Omer Yezdani, director of planning and strategic management at the Australian Catholic University.

Yezdani notes that the past 35 years have also seen massive changes to labour markets and the Australian economy.

“The myth of a ‘consistent decline’ runs counter to what has been an era of constant change,” he says. For example, in 1986, only 7% of 15-74 year-olds in Australia held a bachelor degree qualification, compared to 28% for men and 35% for women in 2017.

“Over that period, the sophistication and diversity of the Australian graduate employment market forever changed, and for the better,” Yezdani says.

Following the late 1980s recession and the stock market crash known as ‘Black Tuesday’ in Australia, graduate employment rates took 10 years to recover to their original levels.

“Unlike the sharp turns of the stock market, losses and gains in graduate employment are a slow burn,” he says.

Today, however, the jobs available and the salaries of new graduates are on the rise, in line with improved job participation and wage growth across the Australian workforce.

New graduates with a first degree are earning a median annual salary of AU$61,000 (US$43,800) while those with postgraduate coursework qualifications average AU$83,000 a year.

Employers approve

A second annual survey in 2018 of 5,300 Australian employers of graduates and their direct supervisors, also released on 11 January, found that employer satisfaction with graduates had hit its highest level ever recorded.

The results revealed that 85% of employers were satisfied with the skills that the graduates brought to their new roles, including their teamwork and communication abilities.

Nine in 10 supervisors agreed that graduates were ‘very well’ or ‘well-prepared’ for their new jobs as a result of their university studies.

More than 80% of the supervisors noted that the graduates’ qualifications were important for their current job, disproving common claims that a university education was unrelated to the skills needed in the workforce – or that it did little to help an unemployed person find fulfilling work.

As might be expected, the graduate employment survey found that undergraduates from the
more vocationally oriented study areas were likely to have greater success in the labour market immediately after graduating.

In 2018, pharmacy, medicine, rehabilitation and dentistry undergraduates had the highest rates of full-time employment, at up to 97%.

But those graduating in the arts, tourism, hospitality, communications, sport and recreation were markedly less successful. Their employment success rates ranged from percentages in the mid-50s to the upper 60s.

The writers of the Graduate Outcomes Survey point out that many factors may affect employment outcomes, beyond the quality of teaching, careers advice and such like.

These include whether the students had studied externally, the course offerings available, the composition of the student population, and variations in state or territory and regional labour markets.

All of these might also impact on the salaries that new graduates are offered, say the authors.

Gender remains significant

A graduate’s gender, however, is also a significant factor in their earning potential. As the Graduate Outcomes Survey writers note, “females tend to graduate from fields of education with lower salary levels”.

Even so, female undergraduates in most study areas generally still earn less than their male counterparts immediately on graduation, although there are some exceptions.

Females in rehabilitation and veterinary science earn AU$200 and AU$100 more each week respectively than their male counterparts, while starting salaries between males and females are generally the same for engineering, computing, and information systems graduates.

“On the whole, however, study area results demonstrate that beyond subject choice, the gender gap in median undergraduate salaries persists due to a range of other factors such as occupation, age, experience, personal factors and possible inequalities within workplaces.”

Acting Chief Executive of Universities Australia Anne-Marie Lansdown says the overall strong results of the graduate outcomes survey show that university education “continues to be a great investment”.

“As tens of thousands of school leavers and other university applicants receive their offers of a place on campus this year, they can rest assured that a university education will pay dividends – both professionally and personally,” Lansdown says.

“The survey of employers shows that universities are preparing students well for the world of work, with a record number of employers satisfied with the quality of university graduates.”

She adds that as the Australian economy continues to recover from the global financial crisis, graduate employment rates and their salaries will continue to climb.

“Universities are developing the highly-skilled workforce Australia needs to drive our shared prosperity,” she says.