Are university graduates too picky to get jobs? 

According to a recent study made by High Fliers Research, the number of graduate vacancies available to students may be at a high, but roles are increasingly left unfilled because students are becoming too picky to take them. In the annual Graduate Market study, which analyses graduate vacancies and starting salaries at the UK’s top 100 employers, High Fliers found that, whilst the number of graduates hired rose by 3.3% last year, 1074 places were left unfilled – the highest number recorded since the survey began in 1994. Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers Research, linked the results to a changing attitude in the student community, saying that, “Overall we probably have twice as many graduates as there are jobs, but at the top end graduates are becoming increasingly choosy.” However, given that most students continue to identify with the difficulty of finding work after university, along with increasing levels of pressure and competition for roles, is this summation a fair reflection of the wider student community? The lack of correlation between jobs available and positions filled points perhaps to a changing graduate job market in which the gap between the “best” and the “rest” is becoming ever wider, but does not necessarily reflect the reality of the job hunt faced by the average student.

According to the study, the median starting salary for jobs in the top 100 companies is £30,000 and employers are putting in more effort than ever to expand their graduate recruitment base, for example with visits to university careers fairs and the offer of mentoring and internship programmes. At first sight, it might appear that students have more choice and opportunity than ever when it comes to job hunting. Not exactly. The majority of graduate jobs continue to cater towards certain sectors; primarily accountancy, finance and engineering, which continue to see that largest growth in graduate recruitment compared to sectors such as media, which saw a drop in recruitment last year by 36.7%. Vacancies are also geographically centralised, with 82% of the companies offering placements in London, compared to only 45% across Scotland and 26% in Northern Ireland. Whilst the number of graduate vacancies may be rising, it cannot be said that there are equal opportunities for graduates in terms of degree requirements and job locations.

Graduate recruitment, and the job market as a whole, is still on the rise after its recovery from the financial crisis of 2008-09, and this year employers foresee an expansion of graduate recruitment by 7.5%, which will take graduate recruitment to its highest ever figure. The largest growth is seen in sectors that were hit the worst in the crisis, such as banking and IT, so the figures corresponding to such recovery may come as little surprise, but also give little hope for an increasing level of equality in the graduate market – in fact, they suggest that job opportunities are still limited to certain sectors and certain degree choices. The number of graduate openings is increasing, but so too is the student population itself, and with competition for jobs as fierce as ever, many students on courses that lie outwith the main disciplines sought after by the top 100 are left struggling. These students, at least, can hardly be labelled as picky because the choice to be picky often isn’t there in the first place.

So what about the students who are apparently able to turn down £30,000 jobs, holding all the cards whilst employers are left with empty office space? And why are students who turn down or renege offers labelled as too choosy and resented rather than praised for having options and making decisions about their futures? For the fortunate few at the top end of the graduate pool, the freedom of choice is hardly negative. Being labelled as “picky” degrades the effort put in by students when applying for jobs and lays blame for the empty vacancies with student body as a whole. According to High Fliers, the blame for the unfilled vacancies lies squarely with students rather than employers. The mantra of “take what you can get” may improve statistics and figures, but the expectation that students have fewer rights than anyone else in terms of being able to cancel contracts or turn down offers is not only hypocritical and patronising but really not conducive to job satisfaction for university leavers. Students should not be deprived of choice, and the supposed reality check which people cite our current generation of students as being in need of is unfair and damaging to our sense of what we should and can expect from the world of work. It’s not all disenchantment and monotony after university; if you are lucky enough to have a choice of jobs, or a choice between taking a job and taking time out, relish it! Of course, job offers should be given to those who best fit the role, but this does not mean that employers hold no responsibility if one of the lucky individual reconsiders their options. Elitism clearly exists in the recruitment structure too, to the detriment of both students and employers.

The number of vacancies left empty therefore does not reflect a lack of attraction to graduate jobs on the part of students. The number of applications received per job continues to rise, and it is encouraging rather than disheartening that some power can still be attributed to graduates in the recruitment process. The “picky” label attributed to students who have the option to cancel work offers makes clear above all the widening gap in the graduate market, a disparity between opportunities offered to the elite and opportunities offered to the majority.

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