December 16, 2021

University career services: A critical tool in a competitive climate

It’s a tricky time for graduates. As class-of-2021 graduates collide and compete with their 2020 peers, who lost out due to the pandemic-induced suspension of graduate programmes, fewer opportunities are being spread even more thinly across a bumper crop of applicants in super-competitive jobs market – with predictably diminishing returns.


According to a recent Financial Times survey, many respondents, including graduates from top universities, are struggling to secure entry-level positions, forcing them to either accept positions with lower salaries or to change the trajectory of their career path altogether.


This development chimes with figures from a 2020 study by graduate careers service Prospects, showing that 29 percent of final year students from this cohort lost their jobs, while almost as many (26 percent) missed out on internships or had their graduate job offer deferred or withdrawn (28 percent).


The High Fliers annual review of graduate vacancies also reported that employers in The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers cut their graduate recruitment last year by more than 15 percent against original 2020 targets.


Underemployment is widespread, too, with up to 43 percent of recent graduates affected, according to a report by software company Burning Glass, based on an analysis of four million CVs.


First jobs matter: those who were underemployed in their first job were five times as likely to be underemployed five years later as those who landed a first job that aligned with their academic credentials. Women are especially vulnerable to underemployment. Although they graduate at higher rates, women are more likely to start off behind the career curve: almost half of all female graduates are in jobs for which they are overqualified, compared with 37 percent of male graduates.


A critical time for careers advice

And yet, at a time when incisive careers advice could be at its most crucial, students are sceptical of the benefit of universities’ careers services.


For students looking to transition to a rewarding career path, the extent to which they find career services accessible and helpful relates directly to their evaluation of the return on investment (ROI) of their degree.


A Gallup poll conducted in the US revealed that graduates who reported their experiences with career services as being ‘very helpful’ were almost six times more likely to believe that their university prepared them well for the next stage of their life. However, the same survey showed that only eight percent of graduates both visited career services and found them to be ‘very helpful’.


This disconnect between the potential value of high-quality career services on the value of a degree and their perceived value, based on graduate experience, should be of concern to every higher education institution.


Most of us see higher education as one of the best paths to a rewarding career. It’s a view supported by the increasing number of jobs that require an undergraduate degree – a figure that’s even higher in the UK (circa 35 percent) than in many other OECD countries (29 percent). In fact, obtaining a good job after graduation is also the number-one reason first-year students give for pursuing higher education.


But, with university ratings – and funding sources – traditionally dependent on grades, rather than employability, is enough being done to prepare students for the world of work?


Are careers services fit for purpose?

In the wake of the pandemic, career service providers may find themselves without access to the usual resources – as careers fairs and other employer initiatives are put on hold. However, there are more fundamental problems with the career services model:

  • It’s not scalable – there’s a mismatch between advisers’ capacity and students’ needs.
  • It isn’t set up to provide the data students need so they can take control of their own post-graduate journey.
  • Most universities lack a joined-up, coordinated and strategic career planning function that consistently and successfully assimilates all available resources for their students’ benefit.


Moreover, careers services are often internally evaluated based on the number of students engaged and the volume of jobs posted on their recruiting platform – rather than on any more in-depth analysis. Self-reported statistics based on the journey of highly motivated students aren’t always helpful; we need a service that provides for all students, whatever their background.


Underserving already disadvantaged groups

We already know that inequalities in career outcomes between different student groups persist, despite universities increasingly embracing and implementing strategic DE&I initiatives.


According to the Resolution Foundation, although people with black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) heritage are more than 50 percent likely to go to university in the UK than their white peers, they are also more likely to leave university with less work experience and less confidence about their career prospects, as well as limited mastery of job search and interview skills.


On average, black male graduates earn 17 percent less per hour than white male graduates, while black graduate women earn nine percent less than white women. Some professional careers – especially in STEM sectors – don’t represent more diverse student numbers. For example, Royal Academy of Engineering figures show that while 26 percent of engineering students are from BAME backgrounds, only six percent of professional engineers are BAME.


Although diversity-boosting career development schemes are available, they often serve only a small percentage of eligible students.


How can universities improve career services provision?

Some effective online tactics might include:

  • Connecting students to online career exploration resources that help to build confidence and resilience and that include strategies for networking and landing jobs.
  • Providing students with personalised assessments including career or pathway assessments and interview coaching.
  • Offering CV optimisation to help students progress through the applicant tracking system filters that can be a tricky hurdle for new and recent graduates.
  • Equipping students with online work experience where possible – including digital projects from real-life employers.


Importantly, creating a relationship-rich experience via appropriate mentoring programmes and by prioritising supportive relationships between students and their faculties is key – as is facilitating ongoing career-relevant discussions – to underpin studies with a sense of purpose that will resonate beyond graduation.


Putting students in the driving seat

For students to take a more positive view of university careers services, they need more information about others who have successfully pursued careers in their area of study – and they need access to experts who can provide timely advice on how they could realise their own career goals. No faculty can have expertise in the many possible career paths for any given subject – which is where a managed network of alumni could be invaluable.


Career services also need to be better integrated into the university itself. Preparing for any career will involve the cross-fertilisation of classroom experience with co-curricular activities, internships, and many other areas.


Developing both internal and external career communities to provide essential career advice while putting career services at the core of the student experience – by efficiently curating and signposting the resources and services that will map into students’ needs – could become the best model for scaling and optimising graduate outcomes.


Significant progress can be achieved if universities take a more active – and more culturally sensitive – role in shaping career pathways to drive change for their students. Working with EdTech partners can help support this aim by providing a consistent platform from which to engage with university stakeholders at every stage of the journey, enhancing the end-to-end student experience from recruitment through to graduate careers advice.


Change is overdue. Only when universities demonstrate their active commitment to improving career outcomes and targeting long-term graduate success will they begin to regain the initiative in a rapidly changing educational landscape.


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