Graduate job recruitment – From fish in a barrel to go fish

The graduate jobs outlook still looks bleak for students who graduated earlier this year and for those graduating in the summer. Just-in-time recruitment, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digitisation and artificial intelligence are all combining against the background of a global pandemic and economic recession.

In response and as we emerge from COVID-19, we see a new breed of careers information advice and guidance better suited to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous or ‘VUCA’ world we find ourselves in.

It was not too long ago that thousands of students attended face-to-face graduate fairs with numerous graduate employers in a bid to land their dream job. It was a scenario that was reminiscent of the early 1900s phrase ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ because nobody could miss – employers knew where the students would be and the students knew where to go to get a job.

But when nobody can travel and there are fewer jobs, the game changes and is more like the guessing, bluffing and occasional skill associated with the card game ‘Go Fish’.

In the United Kingdom in 2020, at least 30% of university students lost a job or an offer of a job between March and April after the sharpest monthly increase in unemployment on record. At the same time, competition for graduate jobs is at an all-time high: With graduate job openings falling by 77% since the beginning of the year, there are on average 100 graduates vying for every role.

At least 20% of Britain’s biggest employers have suspended their graduate recruitment selection processes and stopped making graduate job offers and experts say the true scale of the damage inflicted on new graduates will not be fully realised until next year.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has warned that graduate overqualification has reached “saturation point” and squeezes lower-qualified workers out of jobs. It has bemoaned the crude approach to addressing the UK’s poor productivity growth with a “conveyor belt of graduates”.

There are fears that the situation is unsustainable, given that the government estimates that 45% of university graduates will not earn enough to repay their student loans.

The situation is no better elsewhere in the world: according to the Institute of Student Employers’ summer 2020 report, COVID-19: Global impacts on graduate recruitment, the pandemic is having a profound and damaging impact on the global economy. Many countries are reporting dramatic rises in levels of unemployment and there is growing evidence that these changes are having a disproportionate impact on young people.

The report explores how these economic changes are impacting graduate recruitment in 21 countries, with results broadly reflecting the issues in the UK graduate jobs market.

Career services must die

The solutions are challenging, but were foreshadowed in 2013 by Andy Chan, vice president for innovation and career development at Wake Forest University. He gave a TEDx talk, “Career Services Must Die”, where he challenged colleges and universities to completely rethink the traditional delivery of career services. Seven years later, he did an update.

He says: “Sadly, not much has changed at the majority of college campuses; career services continue on pretty much as before – with dissatisfied students, alumni and employers having to struggle on their own. True breakthroughs in career services will come when higher education embraces career as part of its academic core instead of a fringe student affairs offering.”

The reality is that some universities have been treading water as far as careers education is concerned, but now we do see a sudden shift. As is often the way, necessity is the mother of invention.

Changing careers education

There is and will always be a place for face-to-face or virtual careers fairs, CV workshops, mock interviews and assessments, but it seems like the stage is now set for innovation and out of the box thinking.

So here are some thoughts on reinventing careers education at university:

• First and foremost, careers information advice and guidance should be for all students, regardless of disability, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion or sexual orientation, whichever country they are from or heading to post-graduation.

• Careers guidance needs to be well informed by robust graduate outcomes data and insight, graduate destinations, benchmarked employability metrics and up-to-date labour market information for both the country of study and also for major overseas student markets, for example, China, India and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region.

• It will be important to personalise careers information advice and guidance and establish from the outset where in the world students are looking for their first job, for example, in their country of study or elsewhere. Careers advice will differ depending on their preference. It is likely that Asia will bounce back from the recession far quicker than Europe, so could there be exciting opportunities for graduates from other regions further afield.

• There will be a need to manage student expectations because in the present situation they may not initially walk into their dream job. However, a stop gap role working in an alternative industry or non-graduate job may provide them with valuable experience. In fact, speaking to many graduate recruiters in both Asia and the UK, many focus more on a candidate’s part-time work than they do on their degree during interviews.

• Widening graduates’ horizons is essential, for example, finance roles are not just available in banks. In Malaysia, oil and gas giant Shell employs over 1,000 accountants. For many employers, degree discipline is less important than one would think. They are looking at a level of education, but more importantly an attitude and resilience, which should be available in abundance in today’s graduates who have survived the pandemic and gained their degree.

• Students need to be given techniques and tips to find jobs that are not advertised, obvious or may not even exist yet. Effective account mapping and outreach to hiring managers and section managers could be a way of securing a job that has not even been advertised. This year’s graduates are going to have to be ‘job makers’ not just ‘job takers’.

• Students will have to think out of the box and commit time and energy to their own enterprise, join the gig economy and-or become a freelancer. This requires a different set of skills and commercial acumen that most employers find desirable in new recruits.

So, this and next year’s job search for both employers and graduates will, unfortunately, not be like ‘shooting fish in a barrel’. It will require new skills and a new way of thinking and navigating complex labour markets and employer needs.

Like ‘Go Fish’, you will be dealt your hand and must bring your wit, ability and judgement to bear to compete with other graduates in a fiercely competitive market.

For higher education, a focus more on employability alongside increasing resources in this vital area of development will not only add value to their students at a time when many are increasingly questioning the value for money of their tuition fees, but also equip them with new, more innovative skills to be successful in a VUCA world.

Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge and Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD.