Ella, a 22-year-old English Literature graduate, is speaking to me on the phone from her cramped childhood bedroom in Leeds. Her voice is croaky – she’s recovering from a Covid-inflicted sore throat – and her mood is low. “I’m just exhausted,” she says, with a heavy exhale. “I’ve lost count of how many jobs I’ve applied for since I graduated [last year], and I’m so anxious about the future that I barely even sleep anymore.” The problem, she says, lies in a lack of opportunity: entry-level graduate jobs have been scarce since the pandemic began and the competition among applicants is fierce. “You think when you leave university that doors will be open for you, but I feel like they’re all just being slammed in my face.”
The last 18 months have been painful for everyone, but it’s young people who have taken the heaviest economic hit. In the UK, under-25s have accounted for nearly two-thirds of pandemic-related job losses. For new graduates, the stats have been particularly grim: last year, 30% of university students lost a job (or offer of a job) during the first lockdown and 20 per cent of Britain’s biggest employers suspended their graduate recruitment drives. Last summer, research from jobs website Milkround found that only 18 per cent of 2020 university leavers were able to secure employment before graduating, compared to 60 per cent the previous year. The crisis has been so bad that, at one point, there were reportedly 100 applicants for each new graduate role. “It is competitive,” says Dan Hawes, the Marketing Director of Brighton’s Graduate Recruitment Bureau (GRB). “We’re telling graduates that they certainly need to up their game in terms of standing out.”
Not all industries have been ravaged by the pandemic. Some, like cybersecurity, e‑commerce and financial tech, are thriving, thanks to all the time we’ve spent online over the last few months. But others, like hospitality, construction, the arts and tourism, have struggled, and have consequently become almost impenetrable for new graduates.
“It’s so difficult,” says Kelly, a 23-year-old History graduate. Like Ella, she has been applying for jobs daily since leaving university last May. “I originally wanted to [use my degree to work in] the museums and heritage sector, but it’s been impossible to get in due to Covid closures. So now I’ve just been applying for any job I can see, but I’ve not had any luck, unfortunately.”
For George, 23, it’s been a similar story. “Originally I intended to stay in London and start auditioning for performing jobs on cruises, tours and in theatres,” he says. After graduating with a BA in Voice in Performance last summer, he was forced to put his dreams on hold and move back home to the West Midlands.
Since then, he has been working in hospitality, getting a job in a bar, then an Italian restaurant (he was lucky enough to be furloughed for both lockdowns). “It was devastating reading the news that the West End had shut down and audience members and performers were being turned away at the doors,” he says. “Over the months my depression and anxiety went through the roof. I wasn’t feeling much hope, considering how badly the government was handling the situation.”
The uncertainty of a global pandemic, teamed with the threat of another recession, has made businesses less inclined to go on big graduate recruitment drives. But there are also other logistical challenges to deal with. The switch to virtual communication and the loss of IRL office time has transformed contemporary working culture, making it feel increasingly alienating for new hires.
Online interviews and application processes become more awkward and anxiety-inducing over a lagging Zoom connection and, even if you do get the job, the lack of one-on-one communication can stunt the settling-in process. While working from home might be convenient for established workers who have a spare room to turn into a home office, young people also often find themselves isolated from their peers in small flats, as they attempt to learn a new job remotely.
Some companies have even decided that virtual internships and summer placements – the first rung on the career ladder for most graduates – are too much of a hassle in the age of Covid and have opted to scrap them altogether. “If you’re bringing someone in for a three-month summer placement, you would need to ship out equipment to their home and start managing them from afar, which is relatively difficult,” explains Tristram Hooley, the Chief Research Officer at the Institute of Student Employers. “It has definitely proved to be a disincentive for employers and the number of [summer work experience] opportunities has gone down quite a bit.”
Without these placements, applicants will have less chance of building up their CVs, standing out against their peers and securing a postgraduate job – particularly as most positions, even at entry level, require at least some level of previous experience.
For the companies that want to open up their offices to full capacity once Covid restrictions have lifted, this shouldn’t be a long-lasting problem. But Hooley says that many businesses are now cutting down on office space or giving up on IRL spaces altogether to help keep costs down.
“Normally, starting a new job has a social life associated with it,” he continues. “You build a professional network, you go to conferences, you learn by watching people interact in the same room… For people at the start of their career, losing that [and going completely online] can be difficult and poses quite a lot of problems.” That said, he adds, the shift to online may not be all bad – it might have an equalising effect, helping potential applicants to save money on train travel and new interview outfits, and sparing them from extortionate London rents if they get the job.
But it’s not just cautious employers who are the problem. For many university students, there is a sense that their institutions could be doing more to guide them through the chaos. Given that the average cost of a UK undergraduate degree is now around £27,000 – not including rent or cost of living, which can spiral that figure up to nearly £66,000 – it seems like a fair complaint.
“To be honest, I’m terrified,” says Georgia, 25. She got a first in Film and Media & Communication this summer, but has been dreading her imminent drop into the job market. “I have had no help or support with finding work and I feel that I didn’t learn any industry-based skills on my degree.”
The graduate also says that, with all of her classes going online, she wasn’t able to schedule any in-person meetings with career teams and that most of the university’s CV and job workshops had been cancelled indefinitely. “I’m on the autistic spectrum so I prefer face-to-face meetings,” she adds. “Online, sometimes I don’t feel comfortable and I often find myself getting distracted… I also had access to barely any resources due to library closures, so could only use academic sources that I found online and most were unavailable via my university.”
George also struggled with the shift to online lessons, particularly as his degree was performance-based (online group singing lessons are, he confirms, as awkward as they sound). “I think the university just could have been more honest with us,” he says. “Obviously the pandemic was unprecedented and no one knew what was going to happen, but they never gave us hope or tried to raise our spirits. They left us to fend for ourselves.
“I still don’t feel like I graduated because I haven’t seen any of my uni friends, as most of us moved out of London to places all over the country,” he adds. “We never got to have closure and an end to our university lives. It’s like the final chapter of a book that got ripped out before you could read it.”
The NUS acknowledges that this feeling is not just anecdotal. In a statement to THE FACE, they say that employability post-university is a big concern for new graduates and final-year students, and that it has been made worse by a general lack of support from both universities and the government (more than half of UK students have claimed that their “mental health has not been adequately supported” in the last year). “Our coronavirus and students’ survey indicates that 70 per cent of students feel that Covid has [had] a negative impact on their ability to graduate,” says an NUS spokesperson. “This is down to the impact on mental health, delayed graduation or a lack of interactive teaching. And over a third claim they have had to reassess their future career aspirations as a result.”
The government’s disdain for young people’s wellbeing is obvious, judging by the last decade of policy-making. Since the Tories came to power in 2010, university tuition fees have trebled and university and A‑level maintenance grants – once a lifeline for the country’s poorest students – have been slashed, replaced with the option of even more loans (the average debt for a graduate entering the workforce is currently £45,000). That doesn’t even touch on the dwindling likelihood of house ownership, the lower minimum wage rate for under-25s and the 70 per cent that has been hacked from the UK’s youth services. Even before the pandemic, rates of mental health struggles among young people were rocketing: in 2019, a fifth of under-25s believed their lives would “amount to nothing” no matter how hard they tried, with 40 per cent admitting they “didn’t believe in themselves”.
Things are looking up, though. Now that the pandemic is (hopefully, kind of) loosening its grip, the more urgent, Covid-related issues should start to fade. Although there is still uncertainty around the future, the Institute of Student Employers found that the majority of top graduate employers have stabilised – and even increased – their recruitment in 2021 (that said, competition is still fierce: applicants will now be in competition with last year’s leavers, many of whom are still on the lookout and applying for the same graduate jobs).
And while this slow return to pre-pandemic normality may not solve the problem of underfunded universities and inadequate career guidance services, it’s still a step in the right direction. “People who have just graduated this year are in a better position than the equivalent people who graduated last year,” Hooley stresses, adding that many companies appear to be “bouncing back” almost to 2019 levels of success.
But Covid is still likely to have long-term effects on the way we work and a lot depends on how companies adapt to – and learn to be flexible in – this uncertain new era. Will things just go back to how they were? Or is there a work culture revolution on the way?
“A lot of discussions assume that Covid will just disappear,” Hooley says. “At the moment, it’s not 100 per cent clear what’s happening, so employers are cautious.” He suggests that, as long as the government stays consistent on policy, without going back and forth on lockdowns and making major, sudden U‑turns (that, er, seems likely), companies will be able to adjust more swiftly, allowing them to settle and focus on bringing in new graduates and entry-level staff. It will also give them the opportunity to breathe and rethink a more efficient post-pandemic system.
“If you’re one of those students who didn’t get a great job last year, apply to the schemes again. Everyone will understand, and will certainly be happy to receive applications from students who graduated a year or two ago,” Hooley adds, optimistically. “There are definitely opportunities out there.”