I am currently doing a long distance course on freelance journalism. The first assignment was to decide what I’m qualified to write about, research a target market that would be interested, and write an article accordingly.
I wrote a comment piece on graduate unemployment aimed at The Guardian, right before the general election. Here it be.
All three leaders of the main political parties said last week that they wanted to increase the number of people going to university. I wonder why?
Perhaps they are harking back to the glory days of Bullingdon binges and captaining tennis clubs? Perchance they’re coming at it from the point of view that they would not be where they are now, vying for the attention of a fickle British public, had they not gone. Or maybe they just wish they were somewhere else at the moment. Whatever their reasoning, they definitely aren’t thinking about what the country’s graduates experience when they leave university today.
I’m not knocking the university experience itself. I had a brilliant time, and I agree with our illustrious leaders that people should be able to attend irrespective of wealth or status.
But four years at St Andrews changed me, perhaps not for the better. Beneath the glittering surface of expanding my writing skills on the student press, and raising money for charity as part of the Pirate Society, there was a seedy underbelly. For you see, reader, I must confess that on my way to becoming a better educated and more rounded human being, I did develop a sense of entitlement to some kind of interesting or reasonably well-paid job on leaving.
The same thing happens to everyone on leaving university. I arrived on the Edinburgh jobs market in summer 2008, several thousand pounds in debt, only to be told that I didn’t have enough experience to do anything interesting, and that I was too qualified to start at the bottom and work my way up. Essentially, not only was I not going to get an interesting or well-paid job, I probably wasn’t going to get any job at all.
As far as I could gather the trouble was that, as a person with a degree, prospective employers – of whom there were few – were suspicious of me. They didn’t expect me to stay in a boring admin job, surmising that whilst I wanted to pay my rent in any way possible at the time, I probably had some kind of dreams and aspirations outwith the exciting world of data entry. It was therefore unlikely to be worth their while training me. And anyway, they’d had four million applicants “whose experience more closely matches our requirements.”
Recent graduates are not just competing for bottom rung positions with other recent graduates, oh no. We are competing with graduates who have a few years experience in the industry but have been made redundant in the recession. We are competing with people who have come to the end of one career path and have decided to go in a different direction. We might be proud of our 2:1 and our witty yet informative CV, but it isn’t going to get us anywhere.
I naively blogged as early as August, a mere two months after leaving the hallowed halls:
“My CV is available on s1 and guardian jobs as well as reed.co.uk, I just registered with Denholm Associates and at last count I am checking job listings on over twenty sites (ranging from media-specific to the job centre to employers like Edinburgh Uni) every day. On stolen internet. But I’m not getting any feedback from anywhere, and it’s raining, and our shower is trying to kill us.”
This is no exaggeration – the shower really was trying to kill us. Sparks kept flying out of it, and for several days we had to press the ‘on’ switch with a wooden spoon for fear of electrocution.
But I digress. Two months, as it turned out, was nothing. It took me six to find the perfect balance – an employer that didn’t mind that I was overqualified, as long as I didn’t expect to be paid for it. And the starting rate of my salary was £4000 a year less than you need to earn before SAAS ask you to start paying back university fees. Score! Thank you, political groupthink, for making this impossible dream a reality.
So what have I learned? The key to getting work in Edinburgh is not to have a degree. It is to gradually but significantly lower your expectations. Give up the idea that you should focus on your talents or interests. Do not fall into the trap of thinking employers might want to take on interesting or talented individuals who would flower under their firm but fair guidance. Don’t tell them you’re quick to learn – you’d be lying. After all, you just spent four years at university and apparently learnt nothing of value whatsoever.
Essentially, you should resign yourself to the fact you probably won’t get a job of any kind. Ever. According to figures from the city council, there are 4 unemployed people claiming JSA for every vacancy advertised by the Job Centre, and that’s good for Scotland. The national average is 6.7.
Then, where you’re at your lowest ebb, something will probably turn up. And you can always find ways to keep yourself going – I bought a child’s craft kit from Poundland and taught myself how to knit. Would I have thought of doing that if I hadn’t attended university? Probably.
Having a degree is not the answer to everything. If you happen to know exactly what you want to do and enroll in a vocational course somewhere like Napier University, you’ll probably do alright. If on the other hand you go because that’s just ‘what you do’ after school nowadays, you’re basically following another government recommendation like eating 5 pieces of fruit and veg a day. Except you’re paying through the nose for it and not getting any of the health benefits.