As the UK makes tentative steps towards post-lockdown recovery, this year’s University Graduates face looking for work during an economic climate of mass unemployment, collapsing sectors (from traditional industries to the arts), all whilst teetering on the brink of a global recession. HOLLY PITTAWAY examines whether there are still opportunities to be found for the most ambitious and talented of our new graduates.

Saturday 11 JUL 2020, 20:00.

We have long been warned that the economic effects of COVID-19 could be more detrimental than the disease itself, and it seems these warning may be coming into fruition; earlier this month it was announced that the UK’s economy shrank by a record 20.4% during lockdown,[1] and that the country’s debt has reached another record of £1.95 trillion, making the UK’s debt larger than the actual economy.[2] On an individual level, thousands have already lost jobs and more losses are yet to come, as a recent poll indicated around 2 million workers currently on furlough could be made unemployed by September, as many businesses will struggle to afford their pay when government support ends.[3] 

Amongst this economic turmoil, a new wave of graduates are entering the job market, many of whom are already struggling with the financial effects of coronavirus. Even those who thought their post-university plans were solidified through internships and graduate schemes have been thrust into the same dyer situation as their peers, as an April survey by Bright Network suggested that almost two-thirds of graduating students had had job applications paused or withdrawn.[4] “I had applied to about 15 schemes/jobs before lockdown for after university and I only got one interview. We locked down on the week that I was supposed to go to the interview, they delayed it, and have not said anything since, even after chasing it up,” recent English graduate, Lydia, told me. “Graduate employment is slower by about 23% so there has been a halt in recruiting, particularly for non-essential schemes like internships when so many current employees are on furlough.”

In response to this situation, a number of firms, such as Vodafone, Marks & Spencers, PwC, and Google have begun offering virtual internships; though, these internships are open to anyone over the age of 18, not specifically graduating students, which puts even more obstacles in the way for the 2020 cohort. While many early graduates prefer to sample different sectors before choosing their career path, this option has been swept off the table by covid-19; “I feel more pressured to grasp the few grad schemes and jobs that are still recruiting, which could mean a commitment to something I am unsure about,” Lydia added, “even the few jobs I can apply for tend to not be entry-level, which is harder for graduates.”

Industries that were previously booming, like hospitality, events, and tourism, have been completely decimated by coronavirus. While summer should have been peak festival season, many events companies are now “on the brink” due to coronavirus, with average losses to businesses totalling a whopping £539,431.[5] “I’m trying to look for a job in the events sector, but since coronavirus it is no longer a desirable industry. This means there is low job availability, but much higher competition, so getting an interview is like finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow at the moment,” said Beth, 26, who despite graduating in 2018 is still feeling the negative effects of coronavirus while job searching. “While I have benefitted from two years of experience in the hospitality industry, this is still a relatively short amount of time when applying for jobs. So even though I graduated two years ago I’m very much in the same boat as the 2020 cohort due to coronavirus and the economic recession.”

Because of the uncertainties within the job market, a number of graduates have opted to take another year of study on a Master’s programme, though economic factors often make postgraduate courses inaccessible. Emily, who will graduate with an English degree this year, will be starting her Master’s in Publishing at City University of London in September; she told me about the financial pressures she has faced so far. “I was planning on working this summer to make the financial pressure of living a little easier (and this is whilst I was planning to live with family and take out a tuition loan), but since my part time job is in the hospitality sector and I am currently living with shielded people, that’s been made pretty much impossible,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to have received a scholarship that will take the financial pressure off for me for the most part, but those who don’t have access to financial aid and have had their plans for funding an MA impacted will have just had this already inaccessible entity of postgraduate education made even more difficult.”

One such student who has been impacted financially is Danielle, a recent History graduate who will be starting her Master’s course at the University of Birmingham in September. She has also been unable to work as she lives with vulnerable people, and while her university has begun offering a £1,500 discount on postgraduate courses for returning students this has come at a cost.[6] “The discount has made things a little easier, but they’ve cut funding for a lot of programmes, especially within the College of Arts and Law,” where Danielle’s course is based. Unfortunately, Danielle was also unable to get additional funding as she didn’t qualify for the grants available in her department, despite being from a lower financial background.

The decision to enrol in a postgraduate course has been made even harder over uncertain teaching arrangements. A recent Universities UK poll of 92 institutions indicated that 97% of universities would be providing some in-person teaching in September, though representatives assured that students would be getting a very different experience to pre-coronavirus cohorts.[7] “There’s no assurances on how it will be, and I don’t feel the communication from my university has been brilliant, so I still have a lot of questions unanswered,” Danielle added. Emily also told me about her worries over what she will get out of the course given the current circumstances; “When I applied to my MA, I was promised a lot of career networking opportunities and hands on experience that you can only really get from being taught in person,” she said. “Whilst I’m still really excited for it, the uncertainty of what exactly I’m going to get out of it is causing me a bit of anxiety right now.”

While both Emily and Danielle had planned on studying a Master’s before lockdown and the ensuing events hit, other students have based their postgraduate decisions very much around the current situation. Jamie, a History graduate who will be studying MA Diplomacy at the University of Birmingham as part of the 2021/22 cohort never planned on another year of education. “Ideally, I wanted to leave university and get a job, but the numerous articles I read online all indicated this was going to be a near impossibility for a recent graduate, especially in the humanities sector,” he told me. “The relative safety of knowing I’ll be in another year of education in a place I’ve been for the last three years sounds a lot better than an uncertain amount of time of unemployment or spending ages finding a job that pays little and also ends up treating you as even less.” Despite it not being his original plan, though, Jamie is still looking forward to the prospect of a masters, even if the scope of the course is reduced due to the circumstances.

However, not all recent graduates have been as negatively affected by coronavirus. In fact, the current situation has enabled some to thrive through online networking communities. On a personal level, despite coronavirus disrupting my plans for a post-university gap year, lockdown has allowed me to focus on and grow my blog, a passion project I wouldn’t have had as much time for if my own circumstances had remained unchanged.[8] Isobel, a 2017 Biology graduate, who lost her job at the start of lockdown, has been able to turn her pitfalls into potential, through starting the sustainable skincare line, PERLcosmetics, that had previously only been a pipe dream. “If it weren’t for losing my job due to coronavirus, I would’ve never had the time or courage to do something like this. In a strange way, I’m thankful this has happened.”[9]

Of course, we can try to spin the negatives into positives where possible, but for the vast majority of the 2020 cohort, the world still looks like a scary place; where employment opportunities are yanked from under our feet, travel plans disrupted, and postgraduate study made all the more uncertain.

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