In the past five months James Scheck has had only three job interviews. The last one is etched on his mind. It was for a junior sales role at 5G, a telecoms company in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. A few minutes into the interview, he was asked to sing a song. Instead of running for the door, he closed his eyes and belted out the first verse of Wonderwall by Oasis.
When Scheck, 23, started his economics degree at Manchester University more than three years ago this was not what he had in mind. He doesn’t want to work in sales but after failing to get into banking, he has expanded his search. Despite his rendition of Wonderwall, he did not get the job but nor has he ruled out singing at future interviews.
Scheck is not the only graduate doing extraordinary things in his quest for work. In September David Rowe, 24, walked up and down Fleet Street, London, for five days wearing a sandwich board advertising his eagerness to work. Gemma James, who graduated this year, spent £300 posting her CV on a billboard in Victoria station for two weeks. Another graduate stood on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, from where he hung a giant version of his CV.
This may sound like students larking around but the reality is deadly serious. Some 300,000 new graduates entered the market this summer and thousands of them are still jobless.
According to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 70,000 graduates (between the ages of 18-24) were unemployed in April. This number does not take into account this year’s crop and there are fears that it could rise above 100,000 when the ONS publishes its labour report on Wednesday. Much more worrying is the prospect of the total number of unemployed young people breaking 1m.
David Blanchflower, an economist and former Bank of England rate-setter, is calling this a “national crisis”.
“Two groups have been affected in this recession,” he said. “One is those that made foolish decisions and bought houses and racked up debt. I don’t feel sorry for them. The other group is the young. They did all the right things. They paid for their degrees and now they have come out into the big world and there are no jobs for them.”
To gain an insight into just how dismal the market is and the effect it is having on young people, The Sunday Times will follow six graduates for the next 12 months. They come from different backgrounds, universities and degrees but they are united by one common goal: to find a job.
In some cases, any job will do. Others are holding out for a “proper” job. They blame the recession but it is not the only factor. They all recognise that there are simply too many graduates in the job market and some are even questioning whether they should have bothered going to university.
Duncan Stevenson graduated with a first-class degree in multimedia technology from Brunel University. The 22-year-old wants to work as a digital designer. He was thrilled with his grades but after five months of fruitless job-seeking, he is wondering whether it was worth it.
“I have come back from uni to find people who didn’t get a degree in really good jobs,” he said. One of his former schoolmates has worked his way from being a cashier at Tesco to manager of a section. Another friend has an IT support role at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham.
Like most of the graduates, Stevenson has moved home. He has done about 150 hours of freelance work for digital design agencies in Cheltenham and applied for 50 jobs. He has had only two job interviews so far — both were unsuccessful.
The experience has been crushing. All six graduates — and the thousands of others out there — embarked on their degrees confident that they would lead to jobs in the sector they studied. The only jobs they can find are part-time roles they would have been qualified for at the age of 16.
Gemma James has an honours degree in philosophy from the University of Greenwich. The 22-year-old wants to work in customer services and has applied for more than 100 jobs at companies such as Tesco, John Lewis and Transport for London. “The companies that get back to me say ‘sorry, we’ve had so many quality applicants that we can’t possibly interview everyone’, so you don’t even get a look-in.”
In October, James took matters into her own hands. She paid £300 — the last of her student loan — to put her CV on a billboard at Victoria station. It ran for two weeks and she was approached by 10 companies but none offered her a job.
“It’s frustrating,” she said, “At school you’re told to go to university and when you come out you will get a job but it’s not like that, especially when there are half the number of graduate schemes there were last year.”
This week James starts a part-time job as a check-out girl at Tesco. She is optimistic that she will be able to work her way up in the organisation — it may be a long slog as she is contracted to work for only 12 hours a week.
Elizabeth Reynolds, 21, a geography graduate from Birmingham, is also relieved to have her part-time job at the high-street chain Accessorize. She is contracted for only four hours a week, working for the minimum wage of £5.80 an hour.
Reynolds would like to work as an ecologist’s assistant or in animal conservation but all of her 50 applications to English Nature, the National Trust and construction companies have been rejected because she lacks experience.
“I thought that by having a degree I would have lots of opportunities but nobody seems to hold it in much regard. It’s really upsetting,” she said. Reynolds has now extended her job search to Africa, Sri Lanka and India.
Another one of our six graduates, Eva-Lucia Llewellyn, was advised at school not to rely on good grades alone to get a job. “I was told to build up the extracurricular side of my CV, so as well as studying really hard I also worked hard at ballet. I was in the university ski racing team and I led the mountain climbing team but it has just been for nothing.”
Llewellyn, 22, has a science degree from Bristol. She wants to work in sales or public relations for a pharmaceutical company. Of the 60 or so jobs she has applied for, she has had only two interviews. One was for a job as a medical writer at a small company but she lost out to someone with a doctorate.
Llewellyn logs all the roles she has applied for on a spreadsheet and if the company provides any feedback that is also logged. The message from the big pharmaceutical players was that they are not interested in recruiting people unless they have come through a graduate scheme. After three months of rejections, she decided to do a masters in healthcare management at Imperial College Business School.
“I didn’t want to do a masters. I just wanted to start working but I’ve been told by recruiters that I dont stand a chance unless I have a masters,” she said. With tuition fees of £20,000 (funded by her parents and grandparents), the extra studying won’t be cheap.
One graduate who has already gone down the masters route is Stephen Goodrich, 23. He has a politics degree from Sheffield and a masters in politics and political science from Manchester. He would like to work in the public sector as a policy adviser on social housing but even with a master’s he is not making much progress.
“Having a postgraduate qualification will help you get your foot in the door but since everyone else is doing it, that market will become saturated too,” he said. At an interview with the London & Quadrant Housing Trust, a housing association, Goodrich was criticised for “talking up” his degree.
“I didn’t get the job so I asked for some feedback and they said ‘you were talking up your degree but everyone’s got one so you need to think of some other way of promoting yourself’.” It’s little wonder that he refers to his degree as nothing more than a “glorified A-level”.
Goodrich and Scheck are the only two of our graduates on benefits. This allows them to focus on getting “graduate-level” jobs — at least for the time being. Goodrich, who moved to London recently, is using money inherited from his grandfather to cover rent and bills. He expects that the funds will run out after Christmas, despite living in relative penury — his weekly luxury is one pint of beer.
All these graduates try their best to put on a brave face. They appreciate that there are thousands in the same situation but that doesn’t make the rejections any easier. Those who are getting financial support from their parents feel guilty and they are all desperate to start paying off their student debts.
Scheck, who is still reeling from his Wonderwall experience, is hopeful that one day he will look back on it and laugh. For now, though, that day seems pretty distant.
Source: Kate Walsh, The Sunday Times 08/11/09