Alex Wilkie cuts short our chat. He has to get ready for his 3pm shift at a Toby Carvery outside York. Wilkie, 25, a film and television production graduate from York St John University, spends part of his week serving customers beef, gammon, turkey, or pork and all the trimmings they can fit on a plate for £5.99. It's gruelling, he admits, but it's a living. And so is his second job.
For 10 hours a week Wilkie works at a local Argos, a job he's just started and likes a lot.
"They've said it's kind of an initiation phase, and if you proved yourself to them in that time they'd give you more work," he says. Work there could ramp up just in time for the Christmas shopping rush, and would be warmly welcomed.
"I spent most of my life after uni in my overdraft, but I just found out I'm owed £3,472 in tax rebates for the last three years I never received." Right now things are going well, Wilkie says. But the life he's leading is not the one he thought he'd have when he went to university to study.
"I kind of got put off the idea of it in the middle of my course," he explains. During his second year studying film and television production, guest speakers turned up at lectures to give advice and talk about their experience.
"One particular one was something like the head runner on Emmerdale or something," Wilkie says. "He was bragging about how willing he was to sever ties with friends and family and break up with his girlfriend so that he could dedicate all his time to damn Emmerdale. He talked about how he started out hopeful and idealistic and then had to kind of grow up and dedicate all his time to it.
"I saw a man who went into showbiz with all these romantic ideas, and then when the weight of the world crushed his shoulders he rebuilt his spine out of everything wrong with the pursuit of success. It wasn't for me, man."
Wilkie is unique – lucky, even – in having wilfully opted out of his chosen industry and landed two jobs after graduation. As a new cohort of students prepare to begin degrees at universities across the country, new research shows that for many students, pragmatism takes precedence over best wishes when it comes to the postgraduation job market.
According to Mintel, a market research company, more than half of students are willing to take a job with little or no connection to their degree in order to get a steady income. That rises to nearly two in three male students aged 18–20 and working their way through higher education. Overall, fewer than half of those asked say they’re confident about their job prospects after graduation.Why? In part, the increasing number of students gaining university-level qualifications means that graduates can’t afford to be picky when choosing employment. In autumn 1995, 1.72 million students were in tertiary education. In 2012, 2.34 million students were enrolled at UK universities – a 36% increase. And though seven in 10 graduates completing their first degree end up in employment within six months of receiving their degree, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which tracks graduates’ fates, only around 40% of all those who earned a degree in the summer of 2013 were on a permanent or open-ended contract. Nearly 30,000 students who graduated that year, the latest for which statistics are available, were unemployed or travelling six months after completing their studies. Many take up jobs as temporary measures, not expecting to make a career from their first graduate job. Research by the Local Government Association (LGA) in March 2014 showed that 1.2 million 16–24-year-olds in England and Wales are “underemployed or overqualified”, 295,000 of whom are graduates in non-graduate-level jobs.
It’s a little less than three months after Megan Cunningham graduated from Newcastle University with an English Language degree. And though working the bar at a genteel golf club so soon after graduating is not to be sniffed at given the tens of thousands of graduates without any kind of job, it’s fair to say the 22-year-old doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life pulling pints.
“Today an old man came up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you have a proper job?’” she says.
She was tempted to reply “I often ask myself the same question, sir”, but held her tongue.
Bright, smart, and motivated, Cunningham spent the last few months of university and the first few months of her summer applying to countless graduate schemes without success. So she kept trying. And then she stopped. Rejection ground her down.
“Honestly, I’ve kind of ground to a halt and haven’t applied to anything for a month or so,” she admits. People keep telling her that she just needs to get out there; to keep active; to keep out there.
“Where?” is her simple response to those people.
The smaller pool of jobs available across the country means necessity often wins the day. Though the wider job market is improving for graduates, Stephen Isherwood, the chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), says, “This doesn’t mean the job market is easy. There are still unfilled graduate vacancies as employers are not always able to find the right people, with the right knowledge, skills, and attitudes, for the job.”
Coventry University sports marketing graduate Alfred Ajani faced the same struggle as Cunningham and countless others who have collected their scrolls in the past several years. “For my age group it’s been drilled into us since secondary school: Go to university and go and get a job,” he says. But once he got there and graduated, the promise wasn’t fulfilled.
Twenty-two-year-old Ajani applied for more than 300 jobs after graduation from his BA course, with no success.
“It started with sports jobs, but then it was marketing jobs,” he says. “Obviously the response was, ‘Not enough experience.’ So I started lowering standards; going for receptionist jobs. I tried to get my old job at a restaurant back. I applied for internships and events. I got interviews, but some of them were to sell vending machines to gyms. I was thinking to myself, ‘Did I go to university to sell vending machines to gyms?’ It didn’t really match up with my career path.”
Frustrated, he took desperate measures. Suited up, he stood at London’s Waterloo station holding a simple sign that read: "Marketing graduate (BA Hons 2:1 Coventry Uni) – ask for a CV."
It worked. Ajani’s stunt spread on Twitter and Facebook; employers got in touch from as far afield as Barcelona. On September 8, Ajani started work at recruitment company Asoria Group.
And though Ajani would recommend other graduates struggling to land a job follow his lead, the real question is why the job market is so skewed that an employable person should have to become a human billboard in order to get a job halfway relevant to their area of study.
“Organisations should be curating new jobs, new avenues to be filled,” he tells BuzzFeed News. “Us graduates, we are the future. If we don’t invest in the future workforce, when the current workforce retires, the skills won’t be there, and we’ll fall behind. It’s like the England football team.”
Ajani has become the face of a struggling movement. He plans to tour universities, giving lectures that advise students on how to stand out in a difficult job market. The first stops, he hope, will be Oxford, Cambridge, Loughborough, and his old haunt, Coventry.
“Employers need to respect graduates more and invest in the future workforce,” he says. “I want to build a movement of, not necessarily angry graduates, but ready-to-work graduates who don’t want to get into dead-end careers that aren’t related to what they studied.”
Plenty of people aren’t necessarily in the right jobs for their degrees. Twenty-five-year-old Charlotte Robson started a BA in drama at Queen Mary University, London, in 2008. She completed a postgraduate law conversion from Northumbria University this summer. Today she’s working in human resources for a company in London – and enjoying her job tremendously.
But she’d have done things differently in hindsight.
“I wouldn’t have gone to uni when I was 19,” she says. “I’d have waited to see what I actually wanted to do. I did a degree relating to a hobby with no clear way to support myself in the long term. It would have been far more beneficial to me to take another year or two [to firm up decisions].
“That’s not to say I’m unhappy where I am now; it’s just that where I am now is a product of floundering around for quite some time.”
Robson began her first degree before tuition fees rose to a maximum of £9,000, and her postgraduate studies weren’t affected by the 2012 hike. (A quarter of those asked by Mintel say that increased tuition fees have put a lot of financial pressure on them or their family.) Still, Robson’s law conversion cost her nearly £7,000 in tuition fees alone. She went to university without really knowing what career path she wanted to follow because it was the done thing, she says, and because “I think it increases the chances of becoming a decent earner".
“My current job is not law-based, but I wanted a salary and a life,” Robson says.
Phil Copley, 26, is going back to university one night a week, completing a part-time graduate law degree. All being well, he’ll complete his course in summer 2016. After that, he’ll begin a legal practice course, which will take another two years. At which point, he hopes to start a two-year training contract with a law firm. By 2020 he should be a lawyer.
“It’s something interesting and different, and depending on where I specialise, I can hopefully make a difference in people’s lives,” says Copley, who completed his BA degree in 2009. After a year travelling, he did a one-year MA course, and entered the job market. Or tried to.
He sent out vast numbers of applications to everyone from FTSE 100 companies to his local supermarket, via publishing houses, language schools, and just about everything in between.
At one time Copley applied to Tesco for a job stacking shelves on a night shift. He got a response: The supermarket said he was overqualified.
“I had two degrees from a good university and a decent amount of work experience, but no one would give me a chance.” A mortgage company in Skipton, his home town, eventually replied. “It was a temp job originally, which I got through an agency,” he says. “They were the only place that even gave me an interview.”
Three years later, the temporary job made more permanent, Copley will still be working at the mortgage company as he starts his third crack at university.
“I guess I’m one of a very small group of people I know our age who didn’t graduate,” says 25-year-old Michael Byrne from his London flat on a sunny Friday morning. “I went for a year, then quit, and didn’t go back.”
Byrne began a classics and philosophy course. He liked the subject, but at the end of his first year he had a rethink. “I had a bizarre sense of not really knowing why I was there doing it after the first year," he says. "I wasn’t particularly enjoying the environment or the university itself.
“I felt like I knew what I wanted to do at the time, and university wasn’t it. Spending another couple of years at university and getting a degree wouldn’t necessarily be hugely beneficial for me.”
So he quit, and chanced his arm in the job market without a degree. “It was something I was aware of,” he admits. “Most of the people I work with had a degree. And you are aware that if you apply for a job and the other person is as good as you but has a degree, it could very well go to them. But actually after you’ve had a couple of jobs it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. I guess it depends on the industry you work in.”
Byrne wanted to work in the theatre, and set out applying for jobs. Now, 20 or more positions later in a variety of theatres, he’s managed to combine his love of the arts with another passion: programming. He works at a company developing software for theatres.
It wasn’t easy, he’s keen to stress. “There have definitely been periods where it’s been difficult to find something. I’ve been on the dole a couple of times, and that isn’t a pleasant experience.” But, he thinks, “It’s difficult to find a job whether you have a degree or not.”
Some universities don’t necessarily improve people’s chances of employment. The Sunday Times discovered that at some universities, more than half of graduates are £30,000 poorer and no better off in terms of employability after their degree. At London Metropolitan University, 54% of graduates aren’t in fitting jobs half a year after graduating.
A couple of years ago, Byrne toyed with going back to university to study for a degree. In the end, contentedness with his current situation and the increased cost of higher education since he first enrolled at university dissuaded him. His is a measured view, and one that’s worth bearing in mind amid the fears and concerns of those lining up outside lecture theatres in the coming weeks.
“I would say that I think for the majority of people a degree is a very good thing,” he says. “Not only for the employment benefits but for a bunch of other reasons. Spending three years learning something you enjoy is a very valuable thing.
“But if you’re not enjoying it, and it’s not something you want to do, worrying about getting a job afterwards isn’t too much of a worry – unless you’re intending on going into a certain profession that requires it. You just have to make sure you get a good employment history and CV, and a good portfolio of what you’ve been doing. And be very enthusiastic.”