Leaving university usually signals the end of twice-weekly hangovers and the beginning of exciting new opportunities, but not for this year’s cohort of graduates. As the coronavirus crisis forces thousands out of work, many university grads will struggle to secure any form of employment. But for others, positions they thought were in the bag months ago have been scrapped entirely, causing a new level of worry in an already overly competitive job market.
Scarlett had gained a spot on a graduate scheme in November 2019, just a couple of months into her final year of university. However, when the coronavirus pandemic first became a cause for concern back in March, she started to worry. In May, she emailed the company who had offered her the position, but was reassured that it was still available.
“I felt immediate relief and was taking the extra time I had between then and my new start date to start finding accommodation for myself and my partner to move to in London,” Scarlett says. But when a friend – who had coincidentally applied for the same position – had his application withdrawn due to the company no longer recruiting any graduate roles, she knew that something was wrong.
“I sent an email to my original contact asking for any updates on the start date, due to wanting to sign a rental agreement – and also just to reassure my mind,” Scarlett says. “I had heard nothing for over a week and so, I called their offices explaining my situation and subsequently was told that somebody would contact me within the next 24 hours by email. Nobody ever did. It was a week later at the end of July that I finally had a generalised email from a new contact come through.”
And with this email came the bad news.
“They were very sorry but due to COVID-19, my offer of employment had to be retracted,” Scarlett remembers. “Just over a month before I was supposed to start the role.”
Scarlett isn’t alone. According to a July report from educational charity the Sutton Trust, the pandemic has greatly impacted access to work for university graduates. “At that point, 18 percent of work experience placements were cancelled or postponed, 15 percent had reduced access to the university careers service and 7 percent had interviews cancelled,” says Dr Rebecca Montacute, the organisation’s research and policy manager. “Four percent actually had job offers withdrawn. So, that is definitely something – albeit in quite small proportions at that point – we have been seeing, and it is a big concern to us.”
Graduate Fiona had been offered a position on the Civil Service Fast Stream, a competitive graduate programme for jobs in government. “The checks were really long and detailed but by June I'd completed them all,” she says. “I got confirmation of this and I was told that I'd receive my allocation to a department and specific job role soon.”
Fiona alleges that she had miscommunications with the civil service HR team, including one email that mistakenly told her she had withdrawn her job offer. “Every time something like this happened, it took days to get in touch with anyone,” she says. “They reassured me it was just a computer error, I still had the job and they'd be sending me details soon. This was in July.”
Then, just ten days since her last communication with her new employers, Fiona received an email telling her that she no longer had the job. “It was all so frustrating, just the last minute nature of it and the fact that they just haven't explained what's going on,” she says. “I turned down another grad job for this, and they've not even apologised. I couldn't get my [other] job back, so was left jobless in a time when employment is shit as, and I had also missed out on applying for other grad schemes throughout those five months, which are obviously all closed now.”
Another grad, Kofo, also suffered confusion about her employment before it was eventually cancelled. “I was meant to work as a researcher and copywriter on a year-long project with a local artist and her team,” she says. “I was scouted for the job after interviewing her for her last project for my local museum, she was in the process of getting funding at the time. I would have been interviewing subjects, writing blog posts for the websites and making educational videos and resources for schools to help include more Black history in their curriculums.”
She continues: “I found out in about June that the funding process had been stopped. I was already meant to have started some of the work researching and archiving in May so there was a lot of confusion.”
Kofo is one of the luckier ones, telling me that her employer has “been great”, despite the reality of the situation. “She’s put me in touch with people and said to wait till October and we can see where we go from there,” she notes, also adding how helpful her university’s careers service has been.
Other graduates haven’t been so fortunate. Many are now left in limbo – still with job offers but no confirmed start date. Olivia is “relieved” to know that she has a position as a tax associate waiting for her, but she has applied for Universal Credit and is still worried over the job’s status.
“I’ve moved to London, essentially with no salary which is not 100-percent ideal,” she says. “If the position falls through, my plan is to start looking for graduate jobs and start the application all over again. I have already applied for jobs starting now until November to gain income and so hopefully, if it did fall through, I would still be able to fund living expenses.”
Aoife is in a similar position, having been offered a role built “around her skills” from a company who she’d interned with the previous summer. She says: “Originally, I had said my possible start date would be a week after my last exam. After a few emails back and forth, I learned that the company was going through some restructuring so I wouldn’t know the outcome until after they settled. I was disappointed but understand the reasons why. There’s not a lot you can do when things are happening beyond your control.”
The graduate job market looks set to get worse, with a Bank of England report warning that unemployment could double to 7.5 percent by the end of the year – meaning nearly 2.5 million people out of work. But Becci Newton of the Institute of Employment Studies gives a slightly more positive outlook on the situation.
“To think that employers just halt recruitment – it's a bit short-sighted, really,” she says. “I think the one point of hope is that it can't last, it just cannot last. Because businesses won't be able to keep going unless they do replenish staffing and have enough people there to keep productivity up. And so it’s really disappointing for those people leaving this year without a doubt, and those who thought they have places lined up.”
So, what does Newton suggest for those graduates struggling to find work? “Part of me says, shield in education, if you can. If it's attractive to you, and you can afford it or you know you feel your future trajectory can afford it going on to higher-level studies. While this labour market settles down and should have some advantages. Keep an eye on the plan for jobs apprenticeships.”
Newton also notes the value of being “a bit entrepreneurial”.
“Bringing people together in a collective could be a powerful way of being resilient in this labour market,” she says. “Try to build your own networks of yourself and friends – people who have graduated with you. I think we all need to build teams to survive it.”