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Employers in UK not interested in employing graduates

January 9th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog entry questioning the future role of universities. “At the moment education institutions can fall back of their function in providing recognised qualifications”, I wrote. “Although the degree of regulation regarding qualifications and the weight such qualifications carry for employment varies between sectors and countries, in general we might expect that increasingly employers will look to a person’s digital identity and digital record of learning, rather than accepting qualifications as the basis for employment.”

A recent survey of 502 Small and Medium Enterprises  by consultants, the Centre for Enterprise and reported in the Guardian newspaper, provides further food for thought on this issue. The survey found found that 88% were not planning to recruit graduates during the recession. Even more – 89% – have not recruited a recent graduate in the last year.

“Almost a third – 32% – of the firms surveyed that said they were not hiring graduates told the pollsters that nothing would make them recruit a graduate in the next year.

Almost half – 48% – said they had no job vacancies at any level and 39% said they did not need graduate-level skills in their businesses. Twenty-nine per cent said they would need to change their business strategy to require a recent graduate, and 11% said they wanted more experienced employees than recent graduates.”

According to the Guardian “the survey also revealed that some firms did not understand the differences between A-levels and degrees. Thousands of graduates may be being overlooked, the poll showed, as almost a third – 29% – of businesses think A-levels are graduate-level qualifications, while 18% think GCSEs are equivalent to a degree.”

“Most of the businesses in the poll said they selected employees according to the skills and experience they had, rather than their degree classification and subject. Thirty-eight per cent of the firms said they did not set out to recruit graduates, but had done so in the past because they were stronger candidates than non-graduates.”

Of course this could just be the effect of the recession but I very much doubt it. The survey chimes with interviews I have had with managers of Small and Medium Enterprises in the UK. Of course there may be a perception by employers that graduates are more expensive (they may be right) and are more likely to move on. But most employers I talked with were interested in the experience potential employees could bring to the business. Indeed one employer in North Wales told me he took on people according to recommendations from existing staff – an analogue recommender system!

And of course employers are concerned about the competence of staff. Whilst prepared to provide some on the job training, most expect employees to be competent before they start work. This raises a series of questions about the nature of competence and where it is acquired (see forthcoming blog post).

But I question whether the present university curricula are suited to providing the skills and competences (if these are indeed tow different things) – still less the experience employers are looking for. And again I wonder if this should be a core function of university. Why not provide such work related skills and competences through vocational training programmes.

At an ideological level the development of a mass education system in the UK has been underpinned by the idea that the high technology, knowledge based economy which politicians insist is the future requires ever increasing numbers of knowledge workers – i.e graduates. Yet there seems very little evidence to back this up.

From talking to students – or students to be – I get the increasing impression that going to university is becoming seen as a rites of passage, as a way of leaving home and having three mad social years before getting down to serious work.

Either way it doesn’t add up. A return to the former elitism of university entrance is hardly desirable. But the development, funding and recognition of vocational education and training and of work based learning as equivalent in (social) value to a university degree might be a step forward.

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