Helping our students to help themselves

Support can put graduates on the path to jobs, says David Surtees

Many graduates are unaware of what faces them as they try to get a job. Picture: Neil Doig
Many graduates are unaware of what faces them as they try to get a job. Picture: Neil Doig

Increased study costs, more competition and tough economic conditions have made graduate employability a hot topic – and the temperature is rising. A recent report from the Office for National Statistics suggested that nearly half of recent graduates are “under-employed”, giving pause to anyone thinking of doing a degree. The news raises a number of questions: Should universities be doing more? Is there enough government backing for employability initiatives? And what about students – how much responsibility for a fulfilling career can be laid at their door? I believe all three are important.

Many graduates, for example, are unaware of what faces them as they try to get a job – a severe disadvantage at a time when we have an average of almost 80 applicants for every vacancy. At Edinburgh Napier, in common with other Scottish universities, we have stepped up our emphasis on graduate employability after major Scottish employers told us that our graduates, while well-qualified, were underperforming in the recruitment process.

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Lack of student awareness

Scottish Funding Council backing has allowed us to tackle some of these issues and, after less than a year, we have seen real improvements. We have been able to enhance our employability programme, and have hired a recruitment expert from one of the UK’s top agencies. What surprised her in particular was the lack of student awareness of the standard of their applications, and the things they could be doing to increase their chances.

She discovered that many students found it too easy to blame the economy without considering their own role in being successful. Some were sending off dozens of copies of the same application whatever the situation instead of taking the hours it needs to tailor a good application to each post.

So it was clear that better support was needed to enable students to succeed. University staff have pulled together to offer “real” recruitment experiences wherever students face a selection process. Applicants receive detailed feedback on their performance and are coached to identify areas for development. More than 100 candidates have had this experience since September and the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

At policy level, the Scottish Government has long recognised the importance of bringing together smaller firms and graduate talent, and has supported a number of schemes aimed at encouraging businesses to take on graduates. Two of these are closely associated with Edinburgh Napier – ScotGrad (formerly Talent Scotland), and E-Placement Scotland, which has helped provide paid IT placements for more than 750 students to date. The schemes have enabled Scottish businesses – especially the SME sector that doesn’t have the resources to compete in the traditional “milk round” – to hire talented graduates, and have been proven to be very successful in providing lasting employment.

Student development

With more than 65,000 graduates from Scottish universities each year, it is impossible for industry to provide full-time work placements for everyone. There is a need therefore for businesses and universities to work innovatively to enable student development. This is why we and others are looking to interactive mentoring programmes, network building and students delivering live projects to make this happen. Meanwhile, encouraging student entrepreneurship – a strong focus for us at Edinburgh Napier, principally through our business incubator units – is on the rise across the sector.

Talent, drive and innovation is what employers are looking for, which is why it is so important that students make the most of all opportunities.

Competition is undoubtedly tough, but the odds can be shortened. Building networks, using careers services, finding internships or opportunities to widen horizons should all be part of developing confidence, resilience and a career focus.

Paul Redmond, president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Service, recently questioned whether “under-employment” exists at all, quoting Bill Gates’s speech to students where he said: “Burger-flipping is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a word for jobs like that. They called them opportunities.”

That hunger needs to be shared by universities and government, as well as students, if the next generation are to prosper in the jobs market.

• David Surtees is head of the careers service at Edinburgh Napier University and convener of the Scottish branch of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services.