The Unemployable Graduate Crisis and How We Can Fix It

By Alistair Cox

Around the world, millions of students have recently graduated from university and college and for many, September often marks a milestone month as they enter the world of work.

Unfortunately, this won’t be the case for everyone. In the UK, more than half of graduates are working in non-graduate roles, while in the US graduate unemployment and underemployment (those who work part-time but want full-time roles) currently stands at 5.5% and 12.6% respectively. After years of study and expense, what a shocking waste of talent and money and dreams. Year after year however I listen to concerned clients of Hays who are worried that each fresh wave of graduates simply will not possess the skills required to excel in the modern world of work, or even get their foot in the door.

What is going wrong?

There remains a fundamental mismatch between market demand and supply of skills. The longstanding concerns around a drought of STEM and digital talent have been well publicised, but the issue extends beyond that. Students are graduating with degrees offering neither technical nor vocational knowledge, yet these are what employers are often looking for first.

Recent research in the US found that while 87% of recent graduates feel well prepared to hit the ground running in their new job, only half of hiring managers agreed. The shortfall across hard and soft skills is plain to see – one in four roles go unfilled due to the technical skills gap and hiring managers report worrying gaps in graduates’ critical thinking, communication and leadership skills. Around the world, many graduates simply aren’t employable in the roles being created today, yet will have spent at least 3 years racking up debt to study a course that will not help them find a relevant role.

If steps are not taken to address this, then I genuinely fear for our graduates, employers and the global economy. We are already seeing the skills gap widening into a skills chasm.

So where does the blame and solution lie? With educational institutions, employers, governments or the graduates themselves? In my opinion, all four are culpable.

Sad to say but I’ve seen at first-hand how many schools, universities and colleges are unable to provide students with worthwhile career advice that allows them to consider all the options available for on-going education and where this can realistically take them. It’s understandable when most of these institutions are staffed solely by professionals from the world of education that they may not have the insights required to advise on careers outside their own field. But it does leave a big gap of information for their customers, the students. In my view too, the education system is often focused far too much on league table positions than actually ensuring that young people know which courses have the best employment opportunities before applying and are prepared for a career once they walk out the door. I’m a big admirer of the approach taken by the Rochester Institute of Technology, who use data from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics to provide prospective students with a frank guide to how various careers are set to fare in coming years. This treats incoming students as adults, honestly informs them which careers are set to be in demand and highlights which qualifications or skills would be favoured in these careers. I would like to see this or a similar approach become the norm for higher education providers around the world.

Governments have been too quick to assess educational institutions on grades alone, a short-sighted approach that puts frankly unfair pressure on universities and ignores the long-term economic impact. Our political leaders should instead encourage universities to focus on providing the skills that will be vital to driving employment, businesses and our economies. We should be incentivising our students to opt for courses that will keep talent pipelines well stocked. In the UK over recent years, undergraduate fees have increased dramatically and almost uniformly across all courses and institutions. Yet employment prospects vary tremendously based on course and college. As the government looks for ways to build a long-lasting economy and itself spends billions on educating the future workforce, it makes sense to me to use pricing to incentivise behaviour, making the high-employability courses and institutions free or significantly cheaper via subsidies. This would lower the fees for in demand subjects such as STEM and digital, as well as valuable vocational courses, incentivise more young people to study the subjects that business and the economy need and would pay economic dividends as higher numbers of graduates emerge with the skills that employers are crying out for. Those who still choose to follow a course of study that will likely lead to no relevant job can still do so, but they would have to recognise that will come with an appropriate personal price tag attached. For the first time then we would have government fiscal policy around education aligned with business’ need for skills and the appropriate incentives and rewards in place.

Business leaders should be approaching top colleges and universities, asking how they can help prepare the future workforce with careers advice, informing them which areas their business is struggling to recruit in. We must combine the vast amounts of insight and data available in both worlds and put it to good use in shaping our curriculum and courses. We also hear all too often that graduates join the workforce lacking crucial professional skills and industry awareness. By playing an active role in liaising with educators, businesses have the opportunity to emphasise the importance of specific technical and soft skills while also providing future candidates with industry insight – all before they even set foot into the interview room.

Our young people also have a responsibility to focus on acquiring skill sets that will benefit them. A recent Accenture study of US college graduates found that only half believed their area of study would provide them with a good long-term career. This number struck me as appallingly low – entering higher education is a costly experience, and students have a duty to themselves to ensure that neither time nor money is wasted on frivolous qualifications that mean little to employers. We need to be encouraging our young people to consider the future jobs market before choosing what to study. At the very least they should weigh up whether a particular degree will provide them with vocational or soft skills valued by employers. It’s up to the rest of us to provide them with relevant guidance that will help them make an informed choice.

When I first arrived at the University of Salford to embark on an engineering course in the late 1970’s, university attendance was far lower than today and there was a general understanding that acquiring a degree would dramatically improve your employment opportunities. It was almost taken as a given that we would all graduate into interesting and rewarding relevant jobs. I chose engineering because it’s a subject I’m passionate about, but at the same time degrees were heavily weighted towards providing both deep theoretical knowledge and vocational skills – both were put to the test after my graduation as I worked as an aerospace engineer and on North Sea oil rigs.

Today, the intense focus on making higher education accessible to all – an admirable goal which I believe has been mishandled – means there’s an incredibly wide range of qualifications on offer. Unfortunately the focus on skills, hard or soft, has been lost along the way, and the guidance given is often woeful. I’m sorry to say that many of those currently looking for post-graduation employment will have emerged from university with a degree that just isn’t valued by employers. They would have been served far better to follow a different course of study or a different education path entirely, such as a trade apprenticeship. Sadly in the UK at least the last 15 years of policy has enshrined that the only valuable person for the workforce is one with a degree. That is just so wrong as it has coerced young people into higher education that is totally inappropriate for them and their career prospects, and has seriously undermined the true value that other non-degree roles offer the world. I benefited from an apprenticeship alongside my degree and for many people the vocational or technical training around a trade is far more appropriate than studying at university.

As the global economy continues its slow recovery, now more than ever we need to ensure we have the talent required to steer ourselves through. Success depends on our employers, educational institutions and governments providing the tools and opportunities for young people to take up much-needed skills. We owe our future graduates the guidance they deserve – and they owe it to themselves to choose qualifications that will drive their career and tomorrow’s economy.

The Unemployable Graduate Crisis and How We Can Fix It