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Redefining the employability agenda in the age of Covid-19

  • 11 April 2020
  • By Tristram Hooley

This blog by Tristram Hooley, Chief Research Officer at the Institute of Student Employers and Professor of Career Education at the University of Derby, considers the implications of Covid-19 for graduate employment.

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on all sectors, with higher education feeling its share of the pain. At the start of March, no one imagined that university education would be so radically transformed. But, by the 19 March all teaching had moved online. Unsurprisingly, commentary about the crisis from the sector has focused on the problems with managing admissions, ensuring some kind of viable student experience and reworking examination processes. This is important, but so far there has been insufficient discussion of the employment timebomb that is ticking for this year’s (and maybe next year’s) graduates.

Where did all the jobs go?

At the start of the crisis, the Institute of Student Employers conducted research with 124 graduate employers. We asked them how Covid-19 was going to impact on their graduate recruitment. Around a quarter (27%) reported they would be reducing the number of graduates that they are hiring this year. A further 28% said they were currently unsure how the pandemic was going to impact on their hiring. While most of the respondents were from large firms, a few were from SMEs who painted an even more gloomy picture.

Since the survey closed on 20 March, the Covid-19 crisis has intensified. Data from EMSI shows a rapid fall in new vacancies advertised across the labour market. While we do not have unemployment figures from the crisis yet, we do know applications for Universal Credit have increased significantly. More people will be vying for the jobs that graduates might normally fill (if these jobs even still exist). What is more, the wider economic signs don’t look good, with the International Labour Organization (ILO) producing some scary scenarios for post-crisis levels of global unemployment.

In summary, the students who graduate in July 2020 are likely to fall prey to the short-, medium- and long-term effects of the Covid-19 crisis:

  • in the short-term, employers will be managing the chaos of the lockdown and its aftermath and many will delay or cancel normal recruitment;
  • in the medium-term, graduates will be operating within a more competitive labour market; and
  • in the long-term, this year’s students will be graduating at the start of a recession that could last for some time.

What is to be done?

While some in higher education might feel that they have more immediate fish to fry, a crisis in the graduate labour market poses an existential threat for the higher education sector. Although some academics denigrate ‘the employability agenda’, universities themselves have enthusiastically embraced it, with many competing to pronounce themselves as the most likely to get you a graduate job. Much of the sector’s growth has been bound up with human capital theory and the promise that more education = more skills = better job = more money. If Covid-19 breaks those links, it threatens some of the key promises that the sector has made.

It may be old fashioned, but it is also possible to argue that the sector has a moral case to try and ensure that this year’s graduates do not become a lost generation. While the sector has limited resources in the face of the pandemic, it does still have resources that could be mobilised in support of graduates. First and foremost, it needs to recognise that graduates are facing an employment crisis and that addressing this needs to be at the core of the response to Covid-19.

Once the sector has committed to addressing the graduate employment crisis there are a lot of useful next steps. Sector leaders should use their access to policy makers to place this on the policy agenda. Employment, especially youth employment, must move up the political agenda. During the last recession, government came up with several schemes to support graduate employment, and these need to be revived and extended by September. An important secondary concern is to flag the massive problems that exist in viewing graduate employment as a measure of teaching quality during times like this. But that fight can wait for another day.

Within their own institutions, universities need to make sure that they have got the awarding of degrees sorted out in a way that satisfies both students and employers. In our survey, 40% of employers flagged that issues with the awarding of qualifications would make recruitment more difficult. Universities also need to ensure that their careers services are in good shape, that they have made the transition to online provision and that students are aware of and able to access them. Beyond that they might also look at how they extend career and employment support to students after graduation and whether they can increase the number of internships, bursaries and other forms of purposeful activity that they can offer to graduates in the autumn.

Finally, some of the assumptions that underpin universities employability activities need to be re-examined. Employability provision has adopted several, often problematic, assumptions that have privileged individualism, competition and global mobility. In the post-pandemic political economy other ideas may hold greater sway. In such a world, careers and employability provision may need to emphasise social justice, community and the contribution that people can make to their locality rather than always emphasising high salary and high status roles.

The labour market is likely to change and the opportunities that are available to graduates will change as well. Careers and employability provision in universities will be more important than ever, but it can’t continue to be based on assumptions that are drawn from a different era.

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