Graduates are struggling to find full-time employment

Australia’s university graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to find full-time work, prompting calls for a massive overhaul of higher education.

New research shows that fewer than three in every four recent graduates have found jobs – down from 85% just before the 2008 global financial crisis.

A study by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work found that only 73% of recent graduates are in full-time employment.

Rapid technological change is disrupting the labour market while an erosion of “full-time, permanent, year-round jobs with normal entitlements”, coupled with a growth in part-time, casual, self-employed and contract work, have worsened the prospects for Australian graduates, the researchers say.

“Paradoxically, though, the research also found that university degrees will assume more importance than ever, with almost half of all jobs created over the next five years – more than 400,000 – expected to require a university degree or better – up from 32% today,” their report states.

Not enough jobs

But the researchers note that the projected growth in jobs still falls well short of the number of graduates who will be looking for work.

“Degrees still matter, but there is a fundamental problem of insufficient demand in the Australian economy,” they say.

The research found that underemployment among graduates – those in part-time or casual work who would like to work full-time – has doubled from about 10% in 2008 to 20% today.

In addition, the percentage of young people working full-time in casual jobs has more than doubled since 1992 – jumping from about 10% of workers aged 15 to 24 in 1992, to 21% by 2017.

The researchers also point out that 18% of Australians aged 15 to 24 in full-time employment are actually working multiple jobs to generate enough hours and income to survive.

Many of the problems facing new graduates looking for work stem from an “intensely free-market, dog-eat-dog” environment in which Australia’s universities operate, and this is creating a “haphazard experience” for graduates seeking work.

No labour market policy

“Australia had no comprehensive labour market policy or strategy and graduates are largely responsible for navigating the education and training system based on their own interests, capacities and means,” the researchers say.

“This ‘light touch’ approach to managing education-to-jobs pathways begins in secondary school when high-school-aged students are urged early on to begin choosing their career pathways.”

Australia needs to improve the co-ordination between universities and employers, with labour-market planning systems to better match graduates to jobs and plan for future skills demands, the researchers argue.

They contrast the situation in Australia with that in Italy where a public consortium of 64 Italian universities and social partners operate a centralised online database of graduate profiles.

The database covers 70% of all Italian graduates and lists the job vacancies, thereby connecting job seekers with employers.

In France, an internship programme exists for university students with bona fide contracts to protect against their exploitation, while Sweden also offers a job guarantee for young people, providing individualised job search assistance to all participants. Graduates are guaranteed either a job offer, study opportunities, or access to small business start-up funds.

But even given the challenges that new graduates in Australia face in finding work, the researchers point out that a degree is still valuable in gaining employment. New graduates are more likely to be employed, employed in a stable job, and earning an above-average income.

Graduates who do best

In terms of full-time graduate employment, the researchers found that students who study medicine are top with almost 95% in jobs after graduation, while degrees in teacher education, engineering and nursing provide 79% to 83% full-time work.

Among those with degrees in business and management, 78% are likely to have jobs, followed by law and paralegal studies at 77%.

Degrees offering the lowest rates of full-time employment are the creative arts at 52% and communications at 61%.

The researchers say that despite claims of a STEM-graduate deficiency, science and mathematics graduates experience some of the worst full-time work outcomes with only 65% finding full-time jobs within four months of graduation.

They point out, too, that employers are not necessarily focused on particular study outcomes so much as the skills a graduate possesses: Most in demand are personal abilities such as critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, communication and leadership.

“Employers especially want employees with good verbal, social, problem-solving and communication skills,” the researchers say.

“Despite the popular derision of arts degrees, industry leaders actually want more arts graduates in their workforce because of their training in abstract, critical methods of inquiry,” they report.

“Many Australian employers in creative digital fields, for instance, now prefer employing humanities and social sciences graduates (rather than programmers), precisely because they ‘know how to learn’.”