Half of university students feel unprepared for employment, study finds

Experts urge employers to help students identify their skills and ‘boost their confidence’ rather than expecting them to have completed work experience

Nearly half of university students are not ready for work, a survey has found, with higher education students facing barriers to employment, including difficulty accessing work experience and a lack of jobs.

A poll of 7,000 graduates and students, by Prospects and Jisc, found 45 per cent of university students felt they were ‘not at all’ or ‘not very’ prepared to get a job.

Just over a third (36 per cent) of college and sixth form students surveyed gave the same responses.

The research also found nearly all of the survey respondents (96 per cent) said they faced barriers when looking for a job or apprenticeship.

And two-thirds (64 per cent) of those polled said work experience requirements were the largest barrier to finding work, while a similar proportion (62 per cent) said a lack of jobs to apply for was a barrier to employment.

The survey revealed that the pandemic had impacted the amount of uncertainty surrounding students’ plans after higher education. Almost two in five (38 per cent) university students said they were uncertain about their plans – more so than college students, of which more than a quarter (28 per cent) reported being uncertain.

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For university students, the cancellation or postponement of plans because of restrictions on travel featured heavily, according to the report. They described a “swathe” of study abroad opportunities, offers of internships and teaching jobs abroad that had all been withdrawn.

Jayne Rowley, executive director of Jisc student services, said employers needed to help young people identify their skills in a way that would “boost their confidence and enable them to progress their careers.”

“Employers shouldn’t expect to see the classic things like work experience on CVs this year”, she explained. “Their expectations need to reflect the actual experiences of students during the pandemic. This is the Zoom generation and they’re gearing up for a digital workplace.”

Jane Hickie, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) suggested that HR professionals should be making full use of apprenticeship options, adding that many apprenticeship standards from level 3 upwards incorporate supervisory and leadership skills and there are also apprenticeships specifically for leadership.

However, Hickie also warned about the challenges for students looking for apprenticeships:  “Graduates have to be in a different discipline from their degree and landing an apprenticeship can be very competitive because young people increasingly know that it can provide a highly paid career route.”

Stephen Isherwood, CEO of the Institute of Student Employers told People Management that, although the pandemic meant many internships were cancelled last year, he expected the number of internships to “bounce back”.

"Employers should recognise that students won't perhaps have the same level of work experience, but [should] talk to them about what they have done during the pandemic that may have also developed the skills they're looking for”, Isherwood added. “We need to encourage students to realise that it's not just about internships and they will have had lots of other experiences.”

He also suggested that employers should make their development opportunities clear in their recruitment process, explaining that "employers have learnt a lot over the past year so as well as more virtual programmes, there are hybrid opportunities too as many HR teams look to start to engage more face to face again with early talent.”

The poll found that, when looking for a job, students in higher education said training and development was their top priority – three in five (61 per cent of) university students said it was ‘very important’ while a similar number (60 per cent) of college and sixth form students said the same.

Career progression was also ranked as a priority when job hunting with three in five (60 per cent) in each demographic saying it was ‘very important’.