“We don’t need no education…”

Speaking at a graduation ceremony, the prolific American writer and journalist Erma Bombeck once said:

Graduation day is tough for adults; they go to the ceremony as parents, they come home as contemporaries. After twenty-two years of child-raising, they are unemployed.”

Well, at least in 2010 you can be ‘unemployed’ as a family unit. But while figurative unemployment is one thing, months of actual unemployment immediately following your graduation is another entirely. I imagined, perhaps naively, that the summer following my own graduation would be spent responsibly (and comprehensively) celebrating having graduated and getting stuck into my career. Instead, I seem to have spent most of it shuffling awkwardly around the Job Centre, wondering when my status as a ‘graduate’ began to infer that I was either ‘over qualified’ or ‘unemployed’. A group of students from Nottingham University have posited an admirable solution (a student’s focus on the task at hand never wavers) but with graduate unemployment figures working their way towards 25%, it seems that even the government’s best efforts are falling short of the mark.

Jeff Joerres, chief executive of Manpower, appeared on the BBC’s radio show Business Daily to comment on the issue:

Company’s are looking for experience, they’re looking for somebody to start and be productive first minute on the job. That’s a disadvantage for a youth who maybe comes with a great degree and a willingness to work, but I think that right now, company’s are able to find that… without having to go to the youth part of the workforce.”

While Joerres’ point may not be particularly encouraging, it does beg the question; if this is the case, why are so many people still trying to get into university? Rob Briner offered up an answer on the Guardian’s Career Talk yesterday:

Graduates are led to believe, both by perhaps universities and by employers, that there is going to be this wonderful career out there for them… But I think there’s two things that have really changed… One is obviously the recession, so people can’t get the jobs and there’s more unemployment and so on, but I think the other thing that’s changed is simply the sheer number of graduates.”

But unfortunately for us there is no ‘returns policy’ on a degree that’s failing to impress (although you can’t blame us for trying). For the meanwhile, graduates are being advised to ‘lower their expectations’ and prepare for the economic recovery. Come the upswing, competition will be fierce, and not just for the jobs available but also for the wealth of talent that’s on offer. For this reason, a company needs to present themselves and their vacancies effectively. A graduate is an asset in waiting and if you’re going to put time and effort into training them, you want the best raw materials available. Speaking subjectively, I’d like to share with you a graduate’s perspective on employer branding and recruitment; the things that work, the things that don’t.

Now, I have a feeling that my first point is going to fly in the face of recruitment scripture, but I don’t care, because this particular issue drives me up the wall. If you’re writing an ad for a graduate position, drop all of the pointless questions! It may seem engaging, but all it does is cheapen the ad and make your company sound gimmicky. On top of this, most of the questions asked are moronic, for example – and all of these are taken from real graduate job ads:

“Sick and tired of working in shops, cafés and pubs?”

Yes, that’s why I went to university.

“Want to take the next career step but unsure of what the future holds?”

Well, yes, as it happens I’m not the Delphic Oracle of my own career prospects. (Sorry, that’s the English Literature degree coming through. Read “Mystic Meg of my own…” if you prefer.)

And my personal favourite:

“Are you a ‘sales hunter’?”

Yes, I am. In fact, give me a moment to fetch my ‘sales rifle’ and we can set off on a good old fashioned ‘sales safari’.

In small doses this approach can be quite entertaining, but after hours of ‘questioning’ the effect is actually quite aggressive. On top of this, it’s worth losing any tacky recruitment slogans like, “Apply today, start tomorrow”, “Kick start your career” or “How much are you worth? You decide.” We are physically repelled by this sort of stuff.

To be honest, writing the ad is fairly simple; be direct, hold nothing back and drop anything that you think might ‘appeal’ to young people; being ‘appealed’ to is actually quite disconcerting. But the ad itself is only half of the story; there is also the matter of employer branding. If we are applying for a job, we will inevitably research the company. So, what is the best approach?

I have noticed that a number of company’s sites, particularly in sales, stress the youth of their workforce. This is a tricky one, because although you would expect that we would appreciate being around individuals of a similar age, one of the principal attractions of working in any company is the wealth of experience your peers and superiors can offer. To give off the impression that a large proportion of workforce is in the ‘same boat as you’ would actually devalue the experience. I’m not saying that we expect to be mentored if we do get the job, only that when you’re in your early twenties, working alongside people that have ‘been there and done it’ really does count for a lot.

It’s also worth prioritising valuable professional experience and effective training over wage rates and career progression. We aren’t operating under any illusion of soaring through the ranks, but the opportunity to expand upon and diversify our current skill set is a real winner. This point, as well as my last, may seem counter intuitive, but as a graduate your major shortcoming is a lack of experience. If an employer offers to rectify that shortcoming, the inference is that they are taking an active role in your progression, not only within their company but in a wider personal and professional sense. Comparatively, the offer of cashing in quick and a leg-up on the career ladder that, once outside of that particular company, won’t stand for a great deal, seems insubstantial.

OK, I’ve gone on a bit and this post has become longer than I intended. I hope that what I’ve said can be of use, it is, after all, from the horse’s mouth. I honestly believe that the issue of graduate unemployment is, for now, a real problem. But, once the current economic turbulence has begun to abate, businesses will be presented with an opportunity. The abundance of talent on offer will be massive. It seems that the practice of human resource development is split in two; the formation of effective work habits, the dissolution of bad ones. Poor work habits take years to form and graduates, thankfully, haven’t yet had the chance. Now’s the time to take advantage of that fact.

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