Forget unemployment: the real concern is underemployment


Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics have revealed that, despite unemployment dropping back to a pre-recession level, youth underemployment has sharply increased, leaving 47% of graduates working in jobs that don’t require a degree-level education. In other words, although the coalition may gloat about there being fewer young people without jobs, the jobs they do have are increasingly unsuitable. Whilst underemployment figures at Lancaster are substantially lower than the national average, with approximately 74% of graduates having obtained graduate employment, the exponential rise of the so-called gringos, or “graduates in non-graduate occupations”, suggests a fundamental problem in both the education system and labour market within the UK. As a result, the debate regarding “Mickey Mouse” degrees and “McJobs” has once again resurfaced.

With an increasing number of school leavers choosing (or feeling obliged) to continue into higher education regardless, the question arises over the cause of such rampant underemployment. Are young people being given inflated expectations regarding the benefit their studies will have upon their employability? The hyperbole of university recruitment campaigns in the competitive environment of UCAS would certainly suggest so, but many students may simply be acting on outdated information from parents or teachers. The face of higher education has changed so much in the last few years that it must be hard for prospective students to know who to trust about the value of a degree.

Is the onus also on the government and the employers themselves to respond to the influx of graduates by way of job creation and the abolition of unpaid internships and work experience? As we come to understand the impact this trend is having on graduates, it also raises questions over the impact that graduate underemployment is having on the employability and job prospects of unskilled jobseekers, who now find themselves competing with those highly qualified people unable to find graduate openings. For them, this is not just the difference between a respectable, high-paying job and a more unpleasant, menial one, but the difference between a living and long-term unemployment.

One of the most difficult questions concerning the reasons for underemployment is what, if anything, constitutes being an overqualified worker? Indeed, many graduates seem to hold the questionable viewpoint that once one has successfully obtained any degree, regardless of subject or institution, they can expect a “graduate position” somewhere. This is not to assign blame to the graduates, but is instead indicative of the negative side effects that come with promoting higher education as an infallible means of upward social mobility, without considering both the quality of the institutions and the availability of suitable employment.

Over-recruitment by a steadily increasing number of higher education institutions has arguably devalued degrees, with most graduate employers now expecting candidates to have gained a degree, some work experience, and an internship. As a result, many graduates have come to think of non-graduate level jobs as a kind of rite of passage for all graduates, and perhaps they are right. In other words, with almost half of the population progressing to higher education, is it time for us to reconsider what it means to be a graduate and adjust our expectations accordingly?

In September David Cameron announced plans to use benefit cuts to fund approximately three million apprenticeships should the Conservative party win the next general election. Such an announcement does raise the question of the extent to which the government is responsible in creating jobs for its citizens. However, it also underlines a key factor highlighted as an area for improvement by the government in finding suitable employment: having a knowledge of your selected industry and possessing the skills it requires. Many degree schemes and institutions have been chastised by employers for failing to provide their graduates with the relevant knowledge and experience needed to fulfil the roles on offer. Indeed, whilst a degree scheme may hold academic merit, it is clear that this isn’t always synonymous with producing well-prepared or suitable job candidates. Fixing this asymmetry is going to be no mean feat. As always, it is down to us students to make the best of a bad situation.

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