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Seeking simple solutions to complex problems: The careers conundrum

  • 27 March 2019
  • By Mike Grey

This is a guest blog kindly contributed by Mike Grey, Head of University Partnerships at Gradconsult.

In recent years the policy spotlight has been shining on careers and employability provision. Graduate destination metrics heavily influence Teaching Excellence Framework outcomes and league table positions. This part of the institutional offer plays a key role in student recruitment and is a hot topic at open days across the sector. Students who have secured a graduate-level job offer are likely to report being ‘satisfied’ in the National Student Survey. It is therefore no surprise that senior leadership teams across the sector have identified the impact enhancing employability provision can have on institutional success.

However, in their enthusiasm to offer value to their students and deliver impact, they risk setting bold strategic targets seemingly without having fully considered institutional context and market position, the resource implications, their student cohorts and, crucially, the needs, processes and expectations of employers.

The employability agenda can appear quite simple until you consider the complex realities of the market:

  • The graduate labour market is predominantly non-linear: apart from some very specific disciplines such as Medicine, Nursing and Engineering, most students will go into areas not directly related to their degree. Even with vocational courses such as Law and Psychology, the majority of students do not enter roles in those fields.
  • Most major graduate employers are degree agnostic: 82% of Institute of Student Employers members’ schemes recruit from any discipline.
  • According to Careers Registration data, 48% of undergraduate finalists are still in the ‘decide’ stage of their career thinking.
  • The graduate labour market is unevenly distributed across the UK and graduates are less mobile than policy makers or graduate recruiters would like to believe: 69% of graduates go to work in the same region where they grew up.
  • The policy landscape and measures of success are constantly evolving: arbitrary changes can heavily impact on institutional performance and the new Graduate Outcomes Survey creates additional uncertainty, as does the Government’s growing focus on LEO Data.
  • Employers’ needs are constantly evolving, and, in many disciplines, you will struggle to source a unified and cohesive set of skill requirements to inform curriculum design.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Placement schemes, assessment centre simulations and skills awards can all have impact but so can a plethora of other delivery models. We see attempts to address complex problems by presenting simple solutions across all realms of society. The flaws of this approach are holding back the employability agenda in many institutions.

How do you minimise these types of strategic miscalculations?

  • Avoid top-down employability strategy development and empower the careers and employability experts within your institution.
  • Conduct detailed competitor analysis on what has worked at other institutions but do not expect to be able to lift examples of best practice wholesale into your institution – always consider their context, market position and resourcing levels and do not exclusively fixate on what your comparator group are doing. There is excellent practice across the sector.
  • Engage employers throughout the design process as critical friends but ensure those you engage as advisers have a detailed understanding of recruitment processes and the graduate market.
  • Pilot initiatives to understand the hidden barriers within your institution.
  • Make sure there is clear ownership for each element of process delivery and there is shared accountability for outcomes.
  • Do not expect one model to work for all disciplines servicing completely different sectors.
  • Consider how you can support employers to develop graduates rather than just recruit them. This has the potential to enhance Graduate Outcomes and positively impact LEO data.
  • Utilise the outstanding professional associations such as the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, Placenet, ASET (the Work based and Placement Learning Association) and the Institute of Student Employers – they are incredibly collegiate networks that are fantastic sources of insights.

Despite the growing focus on graduate careers metrics, the huge amount of innovation being delivered across the sector in this space tends not to get much mainstream coverage. Particularly impressive is some of the work emerging around supporting disadvantaged groups, reimagining the process of embedding employability, developing the capabilities of regional small and medium sized enterprises to recruit graduates and harnessing the power of peer-to-peer delivery. The UK is truly world class in the delivery of career development activities and is well placed to face the myriad of challenges on the horizon but there are no silver bullet solutions in such a complex evolving market.

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