Are university degrees worth the effort?
Students leaving university are having to face up to the uncomfortable prospect there is a lack of jobs around and increased competition for all employment. So is going into third level education all it is cracked up to be?
As thousands of graduates take the first tentative steps into the job market they face a series of difficulties, including lack of opportunities and competing with those recently made redundant and others changing careers.
A wealth of advice is now available for graduates and new initiatives are under way to tackle the challenges for those leaving third level education and entering the ‘real world’.
The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) is attempting to tackle graduate unemployment by working with the Belfast Partnership Boards and Derry City Council to deliver a paid pilot internship scheme known as the Graduate Internship Programme for unemployed graduates from 2008 and 2009.
The pilot has created 70 fixed-term minimum wage job opportunities in a range of disciplines including architecture, marketing, administration and youth work.
The paid placement lasts for a maximum of six months with training focused on securing full-time work as soon as possible, ideally before the end of the placement. An evaluation of the pilot will happen this autumn to establish if it has had a significant impact on the jobs prospects of those involved.
DEL minister Sir Reg Empey said: “The graduates involved have made a valuable contribution to developing projects in local communities through their work placements, whilst at the same time gaining the skills and experience that will be of immeasurable help to them as they seek to move into permanent employment.”
Judith Shaw, head of the Department for Employment and Learning's Careers Service Northern Ireland, said: “We are aware that many graduates are finding it difficult to obtain employment as it is a very competitive labour market. Not only are graduates facing competition from other graduates but they are competing against job changers and people who have been made redundant recently, many of whom have many years of experience.
“That being said, there are job opportunities across all occupational areas in Northern Ireland. It is also important to note that more opportunities exist in areas where there are skills shortages and in occupations relating to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).
“We would urge graduates to remember that not every degree leads to one particular job. You have gained a third level qualification so try to think more broadly about how you can use your degree.”
She added: “We would urge everyone, of any age or qualification level, seeking careers information, advice and guidance to contact professionally qualified Careers Advisers located in Jobcentres, Jobs and Benefit Offices and Careers Offices throughout Northern Ireland.”
A Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC) survey of students set to graduate in 20012/13 noted university helps to prepare students for the workplace, develop personal skills and a degree is seen as valuable as ever despite people facing debts of £15,000-£20,000.
Economist John Simpson highlighted the advantages of a third level education: “Pessimism is thoroughly unwarranted.
“Everyone who is now a graduate should understand the advantage in the labour market over those without third level education. Real world experience is not a waste of time.
“Graduates will appreciate when they look back in 10 years time that even a job not drawing on talents still gives the opportunity to learn and gain experience.”
He added: “Pick a sensible degree and have a good attitude. Don’t be too timid, look to wider horizons and be prepared to look further afield and travel after graduation.”
Northern Ireland’s two universities are continuing to offer advice and assistance to the young people attending their courses. There was a 20% increase in the number of recruiters attending the 2010 Northern Ireland Graduate Recruitment Fair, organised by Queen’s and the UU to link graduating students with employment, study and training opportunities.
In 2008/09, 88% of Queen’s graduates went into employment or further study, a rise of 3% from 2007/08. This is in part due to a slight increase in the number of students undertaking further study. However, 6% of the university’s graduates from 2008/09 are unemployed, against a national average of 10%.
A spokeswoman for Queen’s said: “The current job market for graduates is undoubtedly tough in light of the current economic climate. There are, however, encouraging signs that a number of companies, especially in the IT, manufacturing and professional sectors, will continue to recruit graduates over the next year.
“Queen’s is committed to ensuring that its graduates have the best possible chance to follow successful and fulfilling careers. The university provides tailored support and advice to students and graduates and delivers a range of innovative programmes to ensure that this is the case.”
In response to the current economic climate, Queen’s and UU are collaborating with key stakeholders to develop a graduate acceleration programme which aims to help graduates get on to the career ladder.
Assistance and support from the University of Ulster’s career development centre are available to students for three years from when they graduate.
Maria Curran, senior development adviser, said: “Those students who graduated in June and July of this year will be embarking on a new career and a new chapter in their lives and the CDC is here to help them on that journey.”
Throughout August the university will be reaching out to its former students with a series of masterclass workshops for recent
graduates looking for jobs and job advancement.
“Workshops give the chance to discuss CVs and application interview techniques and job search strategies in a small group setting,” Ms Curran continued.
“Looking to develop your job potential is key in the current financial climate and making the most of your educational assets, work experience and personal talents is at the core of making you attractive to potential employers.”
Ulster Bank’s chief economist Richard Ramsey said employment prospects for the latest group of graduates will be challenging to say the least.
He explained that unlike in previous recessions the current crop of graduates have also incurred a significant debt from their studies.
“The failure to secure employment suitable to their qualifications and what they had anticipated will delay paying off their student debt,” he said.
“In turn, with student debt lingering longer than they had anticipated this will have implications for their housing ambitions.”
However, he stressed that |the outlook is not entirely negative with the Northern Ireland |pharmaceutical and software/IT sectors both presenting opportunities.
“The only problem is these sectors are relatively small and insufficient on their own to absorb the level of graduates,” he said.
“There are also recession proof occupations such as dentistry/ health care/pharmacy that will provide high paid employment to graduates. There are certain occupations within the local economy which prior to the recession offered high value, well paid employment which included professions linked to property and construction, such as solicitors, quantity surveyors, architects.
“Graduates hoping to go into these professions will face a difficult time. What few opportunities are available will be snapped up by individuals made redundant in this sector with considerable years of valuable work experience under their belts.”
He continued: “Northern Ireland is simply not generating the employment opportunities to absorb those annual school leavers and graduates hoping to enter the jobs market.
“Therefore, even if there were no more job losses there will be upward pressure on the unemployment rate from our students.
“An increasing proportion of our young people will face the stark choice of either joining |the dole or leaving Northern Ireland altogether in search of |employment opportunities elsewhere.
“Rising youth unemployment, graduate unemployment and graduate under-employment will all become more evident in the Northern Ireland labour market over the next 18 months or so.
“Placement students will also suffer from a lack of work experience opportunities particularly within the public sector. Graduate opportunities in the public sector will decrease significantly in the years ahead due to the public expenditure cuts.
“Even high value added jobs in medicine will be affected and more of our doctors having to leave Northern Ireland to fulfil their career ambitions.”
Mr Ramsey said the graduate under-employment problem will make it even more difficult for those individuals lacking even the most basic skills and qualifications to gain employment.
Competition for low skilled jobs will intensify with over-qualified individuals potentially crowding out those with appropriate but lesser qualifications, he said.
But he explained that reducing the number of graduates in Northern Ireland is not necessarily a bad thing: “Too many individuals have had their fingers burnt by embarking on degrees of questionable value and have incurred a significant debt.
“More emphasis should be placed on skills that are required for the economy.”
Case study 1
Graduate not employed in their chosen field
Holly Lynn (25) from Bangor, graduated in January 2007 from the University of Hull with BA Hons Social Policy and Social Justice
“I liked the idea of being a policy writer.
My plan was to join the civil service or seek other governmental employment.
“I applied for several government jobs and to political organisations but I didn’t have the right experience they required.
“My current job is completely unrelated to my degree. I am working as an accounts manager for Creation Finance, but will continue to search for employment in the field I am qualified and interested in.
“I absolutely loved my university experience and would recommend it to anyone, but I would definitely suggest thinking realistically about future prospects before picking a course.
“I feel that being a graduate anywhere only hold hopeful prospects if you do work experience and chose a subject that is likely to be useful.”
Case study 2
Graduate not employed in their chosen field
Angela Robinson (25) from Bangor, graduated in June 2006 from Brunel University with BSc Hons Occupational Therapy
“I started looking for work as soon as I graduated. I did bar work and other temp jobs in London and then following a long security check process I started work as an occupational therapist for West Middlesex Hospital. I moved back to Northern Ireland in 2008 and have been working for the Ulster Hospital ever since.
“I had no clue what I wanted to do after my A-levels. My mum’s friend suggested occupational therapy and after trying some work experience, my twin Beth and I both did the same degree.
“The experience I gained in a more multicultural environment in England put me in good stead. Occupational therapy appealed to me as I love working with people and I get to help patients achieve their goals. One of the main motivators for me was job variety. I would hate to be looking for work now, as the credit crunch is really affecting the NHS.”
Case study 3
Lauren Miles (22) from Londonderry, graduated in July 2009 from the University of Sheffield with BA Hons English Literature
“I was working as a waitress after graduation, but couldn’t afford to stay in England, so moved home. One day I applied for 28 jobs and I didn’t get even one refusal letter, which is frustrating.
“I plan to do teacher training next year, so I spoke to a careers advisor about what to do until then. The general vibe I got was that finding a job in Derry is nearly impossible, and that the best thing to do was volunteer in schools.
“A few English friends of mine hoping to teach have managed to get paid teaching assistant jobs, but over here voluntary work seems to be my best bet. The jobs I have been applying for in the education sector require an NVQ in childcare or playwork, which is frustrating because I thought going to university would give me the advantage. My friends who did medicine and engineering have walked straight into jobs, but there’s nothing for the rest of us arts graduates.”