By Mike Grey
Originally published on LinkedIn
In many of the training courses that I deliver, I like to use an icebreaker where I ask participants:
"What did you want to be when you grew up?"
As you would expect, very few had dreams of working in careers, placements, employer engagement or graduate recruitment…… as it turns out our industry is home to dozens of squeamish people that abandoned dreams of a being a Vet and a fair few humanities graduates that never really mapped a career journey in their time at university.
However, most go on to share that they find their roles to be varied, interesting and rewarding – three factors that are high up on most professionals’ list of desirable job characteristics. Their stories, of course, reflect the reality of most career journeys; career paths in 2017 are typically not linear and the future world of work will further continue to disrupt the traditional notion of a career.
And this notion of linearity is perhaps where University Careers Services face their biggest challenge. University marketing departments, charged with promoting courses, are reluctant to present a nuanced and/or realistic view of potential career destinations of graduates. Instead they invariably cite a selection of the most high-profile employers that students have secured roles with, when this usually represents a tiny proportion of the actual graduate outcomes (think of the one guy in 5 years who now works for the FA, who always seems to get a mention in your Sports Management course literature).
I can still see the look of shock on the faces of my Automotive Engineering undergraduates when an alumnus presented to them about how having studied that specific course to Masters level that he was now working in the Aerospace sector - it is hardly a huge leap! And yet for them, they genuinely all believe their specific degree could only lead them into a career in that specific industry. The reality, of course, is completely different. And we need to get better at preparing graduates to make much less obvious transitions, by normalising this subject/career agility and flexibility within the delivery of career development activities.
If you review your institution’s career insights page on LinkedIn and calculate the percentage of Law alumni that now work in the legal sector, you will typically find it to be somewhere between 20% and 35%. Where it gets really challenging is when a theoretically ‘vocational’ undergraduate course such as Psychology typically leads to significantly less than 10% of students going into the core professional pathways associated with that discipline.
Unlike countries such as Canada and New Zealand, the number of places available on UK HE courses is not linked to the demands of the UK economy, which could be viewed as a potentially huge structural defect. Clearly, a degree education is not all about career outcomes and the labour market is hard to predict, any attempt to take this approach would be hugely contentious in the UK market.
However, no Government would fund 500,000 teaching places if they only required 50,000 teachers, so should we allow students to self-fund such a large supply and demand mismatch in other disciplines? I personally believe that student choice is vital, and the higher education experience offers so much more than vocational training, but if fees are abolished in the future, I would expect the number of spaces on courses to be much closer linked to LMI (Labour Market Information).
The graduate outcomes in the Guardian League Table 2018 for Criminology show where the market dysfunction is most stark; CSI has a lot to answer for but we owe it to prospective students to have a more honest discourse at the outset about the realities of the graduate market.
However, there is a massive saving grace. A huge strength, and relatively unique feature, of the UK graduate job market, is that most graduate roles are open to graduates from any degree discipline. In fact, 82% of graduate schemes advertised by ISE (formerly AGR) in 2016 were open to any discipline; the graduate market statistician magician himself, Charlie Ball, studied the wider graduate job market (c144,000 roles) and found that 71% were open to any discipline. I strongly believe this is critical information that is not broadcast enough to students and academics.
Promoting the non-linear nature of the UK graduate job market needs to be embedded in the curriculum and a key feature of career development activities from year one. Ways to progress this agenda include:
1) Students that have taken less obvious routes or are working in different professions should be given similar exposure as those following the more clearly defined vocational paths
2) Courses Leaders should be challenged to present alternative options within the curriculum and to host ‘any discipline’ employers in embedded sessions
3) The career insights provided through the LinkedIn alumni pages should be used extensively to teach students to explore their options but also to educate academics on the genuine spread of roles their students go onto to work in
4) I strongly believe that Careers Registration can play a critical part in opening up the debate about non-linear careers. It allows you to understand at which stage your student cohorts, at course level, are in the career decidedness but also their intentions. This can be used to target career development activities within courses, particularly those where the lion’s share of the cohort are focussed on linear career destinations in graduate job markets where the latent demand is comparatively low. Without data to support your cause, it can be hard to convince academics to embed employers that stray beyond the usual suspects
A huge benefit of having the course level data is how much it can educate academics in terms of their core delivery but also the conversations they have with students. Students are just as likely to talk to academic staff as the careers service - arming them with data can help to inform those discussions but also potentially influence curriculum design to reflect the needs and aspirations of their cohorts.
In my experience, and often with perfectly noble aims, academics can have quite a blinkered view of the roles their students will go into. They have huge influence over student cohorts, this critical message will never get through if they do not buy into the concept. A careers service presenting this message in isolation beyond the core curriculum will only ever be able to spread the message to students that engage and are prepared to listen to this not necessarily comfortable truth.
When managing EC Futures at Coventry University, I remember feeling like a dream crusher relaying the patently obvious message that there simply is not the supply of roles in Formula 1 for more than a tiny proportion of graduates of Motorsport degrees across the UK. Formula 1 teams recruited more of our Aerospace students onto placements, a fact met by consternation by Motorsport students. It turns out with aerodynamics being so key to performance, that there was huge transferability between keeping a plane in the air and keeping a car on a track and the Aerospace students were more adept with Computational Fluid Dynamics software (don’t ask me to explain further…. I have told you everything I know).
However, that Motorsport course was the best performing course at the time for securing placements with over 70% going into industry for a year, each year, leading in turn to excellent DHLE outcomes. Why? Their skills were transferable and their enthusiasm for engineering was infectious, they often pursued motorsport related pursuits in their spare time so they had great practical examples to use in an interview, that passion for engineering was desirable for companies seeking talent across a range of STEM sectors.
Despite their dream motorsport opportunities being thin on the ground and lower UCAS point requirements to get on the course, they outperformed their peers from across the faculty and this translated into positive career outcomes. We had to work with the academic team to get the messaging right and involve returning placement students that had gone into diverse areas in embedded sessions within the course. We had to inspire them to consider other options; just presenting the harsh realities of the Formula 1 job market would have just led them to disengage with the placement process.
Positively presenting alternatives is vital, a weird feature of human psychology is that negatively stacked odds don’t always hit home. Take this sporting example, 97% of footballers on academy contracts at leading clubs across the UK will never play a game as a professional. However, a huge proportion will believe they will be in the 3% and fail to plan for an alternative future; this is a scenario that is playing out to a lesser extent across many courses in UK HE.
Universities have become conditioned, by the Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education Survey at 6 months, to have an intense focus on the initial career destinations of their graduates. The new Graduate Outcomes Survey at 15 months, although fraught with challenges, should provide a richer data set and may prove favourable for institutions with slightly alternative subject mixes and those that service creative sectors, where careers typically take longer to come to fruition.
Once graduates break into their (often non-linear, unexpected) careers the outlook continues to be significantly better than for non-graduates. Existing longitudinal data on graduate outcomes shows the positive impact of a university education. A recent HESA study of individuals who had graduated within the past 3.5 years found that 84.1% of UK graduates were in professional jobs, with a median salary of these graduates being £27,000. You may believe that neither of these measures presents the full picture or should define career success, however in this study 87.5% of graduates reported that they were satisfied with their career to date. That is some very powerful data that we should all be shouting about. I recently ran a multiple-choice quiz on the graduate market with recent alumni from a leading Russell Group institution and not one student picked out the correct careers satisfaction statistic - most believed it would be significantly lower than 50%. Students would benefit greatly from being made aware of the slightly longer-term and varied outcomes they can realistically expect from their degree.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel for the vast majority of career-seeking UK graduates. It just might be a different light, at the end of a different tunnel than they had envisaged or were sold when picking their degree.
I would be very interested in your thoughts and comments.
All the best.