Graduate unemployment – why?

Kevin Horne
Kevin Horne

The latest unemployment figures make depressing reading if you are under 24, with more than 1 in 5 young people now being unemployed. Whilst the headlines will trumpet this as news, the reality is that youth unemployment has been on an upwards trend for many years, even in the “boom” times. Indeed given the greater numbers of university entrants now, the real amount of young people “not in employment” is much higher.

So why has this come about? For too long younger members of society have been poorly treated by our generation, which seems to have forgotten the reason and importance of education as a preparation for the world of work. An obsession with league tables and exam passes, which can easily be manipulated, has led us to produce a cadre of young people who emerge into the real world of earning a living with the wide-eyed gaze of a new-born baby.

Now is the time to put aside ideological and political standpoints and agree a cross party approach to education which will not be touched for the next 10-15 years. If there is one element of our society which is calling out for a carefully thought through and implemented strategy it is education. For too long we have tolerated political tinkering (from all parties), the creeping influence of ideological views, poor teaching and incorrect investment. Despite this there are numerous examples of clear thought, inspirational teachers and an understanding of and liaison with business – just not enough to make a real difference.

I have taken a keen interest in the links between education and industry for many years and can understand the frustration on both sides, who are encumbered with a state of affairs which is not remotely fit for purpose. Perhaps the only league table that should be produced is how many young people are engaged in gainful employment within 12 months of leaving school or university. At least then we can judge which schools prepare their young people for life beyond education. Of course this is a crude measure and there are many more factors to take into account but without a clear vision as to the purpose of education, from primary school to university, we are destined to retain high youth unemployment which is a crushing burden on society and a scandalous waste of talent. If only a fraction of this wasted money was invested into preventing unemployment everyone would be better off.

To be effective however, any readjustment cannot be subject to the winds of political change, hence the need for a national education strategy agreed by all and with safeguards enshrined in legislation which prevents political meddling. The compact needs to work both ways; schools and universities have to adjust to producing young people ready and able for the world of work rather than with grades and degrees in subjects with little hope of a realistic career path. I accept that a good degree can provide proof of analytical thought, individual opinion and in some cases knowledge of industry requirements. Against this, the majority of graduates are woefully prepared for the world of work as so little time or effort is made to engage business, learn its requirements and prepare accordingly. A degree is therefore no longer a passport to a job, partly due to the flawed experiment of the expansion in the number of graduates – to meet an arbitrary target.

It is not all despair – there are some degrees which provide the model for others to follow. Medicine comes to mind. I doubt that there is a member of society who would want to see a doctor without a degree. Coupled with the practical work experience which is an integral part of the degree we produce medical graduates who stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world. Here, industry and education are seamless.

As a part of the agreement to leave education untouched for a 15 year period I would wish to see EVERY degree encompass the same interaction with industry as seen in medicine. Unless a degree offers a substantial portion (e.g. 25% +) of on job training in industry then perhaps it should not be allowed to be provided. Add this to a provisional career path which is mapped out at the start of a degree and followed up regularly with professional support then we have an exciting future. This renewed approach would galvanise education, improve industry and produce graduates who will be employable – in the career of their choice.
I employ 70 people – with a young average age. Recently we advertised entry grade positions and had 400 applications – many with degrees. Most were rejected through not meeting the simple instructions requested; poor spelling and CV’s produced in something akin to text speak. Those individuals who were successful have been a delight to work with; enthusiastic, hardworking, willing to learn and bursting with potential (neither has degrees). Academic qualifications do not mean a thing if there is no personality or social skills to accompany them – this is where many young people fall down.


We have a wonderful resource in our young people but now is the time to harness this and use it to build a bright future. The question is how many self-interested politicians, antiquated union barons, disinterested lecturers and short-sighted CEO’s will put aside their posturing to secure a great future for every young person leaving education?

Kevin Horne


10 Comments Add yours

  1. super blog you gots here, thanks a ton for sharing it!

  2. Daniel Lees says:

    As a graduate of UEA last year, I’d like to give my thoughts from a slightly different viewpoint. Politicians and people in higher places can adopt all the policies they like; ultimately, the graduate job market is pretty stagnant and unlikely to change for a number of years.

    The advice graduates are given is both repetitive and based on optimism that really is painting a false picture. There are jobs out there, yes, but many grads are assuming that by gaining a first class degree, completing two years voluntary service and working as an unpaid intern will grant them a passage to employment. Ultimately, this isn’t true. What this does is put you on a level playing field with thousands of other graduates searching for a job.

    What gets you the job? Your personality. Your ability to fit within the organisation for which you are applying to work. No amount of skills will ever make up for that. Sadly, this is something that cannot be taught and is leaving many graduates short of a job. For that reason, it’s hard to give any concrete advice to graduates searching for a job.

    One thing I will say (and this is something a careers service would never tell you): Google the person who will be interviewing you. Sounds strange (and a bit stalkerish!) but they will do the same for you. Find out everything you can about them. Don’t attend the interview with the expectation that you will get the job. If you use social media, utilise it to increase your chances. Your twitter feed can be a great portal for expressing your passion for the industry in which you want to work. Enthusiasm is a highly valuable commodity, never underestimate it. And finally, ask questions DURING the interview. Asking the classic “what is the company culture like?” “what are the career progression opportunities like” at the end of the interview are both plastic and boring.

    Ultimately, the Gov. can adopt policies all they like, the careers service can help to a point; but real game changer is the graduate themself. A dose of reailty is needed.

    1. Ian Warren says:

      Refreshing to read such common sense and realism….development of the individual is so much more than educational…..the employer is a) trying hard not to employ,and b) selecting on the basis of interview so he gets the strongest possible personal attributes

  3. Fiona Lettice says:

    Thanks to Kevin Horne for an interesting and thought proving blog piece. However, I think it does present a somewhat misleading picture of graduate (un)employment. I’d suggest that anyone interested in trying to understand the figures in more detail should take a look at HECSU (Higher Education Careers Services Unit) Charlie Ball’s blog at, where he works hard to dispel some of the common myths around graduate employment. For those that don’t want to read his blog, I will summarise some of the points he has made in the last 6 months or so.

    Using various sources of data, Charlie Ball shows that a UK degree is valuable and that there is a big disadvantage to not having one in a tricky job market (see his September 21st 2012 post). Degree holders command a premium of between 57-65% on earnings relative to those with A-levels across the 1997 to 2010 period, with 2010 at the top end of that range. The graph he presents in his 17th September 2012 post show that holding a degree also means that you experience lower unemployment than those without a degree. The graph clearly shows how much harder it is for those with lower qualifications in this recession. His 12th July 2012 post shows that the percentage of graduates entering “professional employment” has fluctuated only about 6% from 1994 to 2010/11. In other words, it is a relatively stable picture over time – and has not seen massive rises recently, despite worrying news headlines or those choosing to only focus on the worst cases. The post on 4th July 2012 shows that there have been peaks in graduate unemployment in recession periods, but the current recession has not seen such a high peak as the recessions in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the rise is more sustained this time. And he also reports that the situation so far is looking better for 2013 – the graduate job market seems to be picking up!

    This is not to say that there is room for complacency on the part of government, universities, students or industry. And within UEA, we are working hard to help our graduates find the jobs they want and deserve. We have an excellent Careers Service ( ) that offers training and advice for finding the dream job, writing CVs and job applications, preparing for interviews, aptitude tests and a host of other skills needed. Within degrees, we offer a range of modules that help students to gain knowledge and skills in specialist areas and to develop more generic skills like numeracy, teamwork and presentation skills, all offered by dedicated lecturers committed to helping our graduates succeed. We also provide many opportunities for students to acquire work experience through placements, internships and volunteering opportunities. With industry and our successful alumni, we run seminars and masterclasses with business speakers, run mentoring programmes and have advisory boards where industry provide valuable advice on the curriculum. In conclusion, we offer a range of services to cater to a range of student and employer needs and aspirations!

    Prof Fiona Lettice, Associate Dean Employability for the Social Sciences Faculty and Norwich Business School

  4. Ian Warren says:

    can’t understand why I’m anon……comment at 2.56pm!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Agreed that the politicos, educationalists et al would be wise to develop a “business plan” to tackle the long term problem over a medium to long term….objectives, strategies, logistics etc. Also agree that the winning of a degree demonstrates to any employer a trained/trainable mind.

    Please do not imagine that “big industry” should be the only targets for attention,,,,the biggest single hirer of labour in our country is the SME, and it is they who are desperately trying to curb payroll and have been as long as I can remember.

    The oversimplification but possible truism is that there are now so many graduates chasing too few positions in a job market which is still changing with an ever speeding evolution technologically led, that their expectations have to be tempered as to rewards until they’ve actually become useful

  6. kirstietostevin says:

    I for one agree.
    I did an English Literature degree which is, obviously, not vocational, meaning that while I was studying something which I loved and was passionate about – it would not have produced any bright career prospects without practical work experience.
    I graduated this year and was lucky enough to receive an internship, because of the extra work I undertook while doing my degree.
    I wouldn’t swop my degree for anything as I learnt so much – but students must be aware that a degree (no matter how high the qualification) is not enough to earn you a job anymore. You must take initiative and fight for it.

  7. So instead of telling graduates there is a chance of them finding a good job if they work hard and employ the right tactics – because, despite your pessimism, the hard working and intelligent will always get good jobs – we should tell them that they are doomed because of government policy?

    1. I think that you misunderstand my point. I am advocating a step change in policy but at no stage do I suggest that anyone is “doomed”. Are you saying that the 55% of graduates who are not in a job 6m after graduating are lazy and not intelligent?

      We need a wide debate but with actions that are part of a long term strategy – that is what I advocate.

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