What is the Graduate ‘Expectation Gap’?

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There is a huge difference between what students expect to be doing after graduation and what they actually end up doing. True, studies show that young Britons are generally miserable about their futures and expect to have worse living conditions than their parents – whether due to fears about climate change, dying bees or Tory austerity.

But in general, surveys prove that students are feeling relatively positive due to their degrees. However, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. There are three main areas of confusion that are causing students to mismanage their time at university, and to be hit with disappointment when they eventually step into the world of work.

Today’s students expect entry-level salaries of around £25,000. This may be because of common knowledge about average national household incomes and the improving economy. In reality, according to The Student Employability Index 2014, recent graduates in full-time employment earn on average between £18,345 and £22,535. Additionally, eight out of 10 graduates expect to find graduate-level roles within six months of leaving university but only 53% find an equivalent position within five years.

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This means most students will have to build up a great deal of experience before entering a position that uses the skills they may have gained during a degree. It’s important to remember that £26,000 is what most people earn after nearly a decade of experience in work, and the data goes to show that graduates shouldn’t feel entitled to that salary. Three years of study does not give any kind of boost up the corporate ladder.

Not that any graduate should be depressed by the thought of a £20,000 starting salary. That amount of money is over twice as large as the average student maintenance loan, which most are able to survive on for a year (perhaps with only a little help from the parents and a part time job). Graduates should be thinking more about their earnings potential and the fact that this is the first step of perhaps a very high-rising ladder.

This brings us on to the second widespread myth among students: that they should get a place on a graduate scheme with a large company, and to not do so is simply a failure. After all, these schemes are what carry the big salaries that make the studying all worth it. But last year, only 14% of students grabbed a place on one of these schemes. To do so should be seen as the exception, not the norm.

The current misconception is because of the prevalence of multinationals, both in our personal lives and on campus. Our careers advisor asks us where we’d like to work, and we instantly think about the most influential and ever-present organisations in our lives, like the BBC, Google and the UN.

We also may think of the companies that fill up campus and online job boards with advertisements for their grad schemes: Deloitte, KPMG, Credit Suisse and Accenture. They offer all kinds of jobs across their departments, have towering skyscrapers in the city, and hold regular networking events to reel in students. This can encourage an unhealthy student obsession with corporate culture.

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This obscures the fact that their intake of students is no where near as impressive as their marketing budgets. Many students are actually going into SMEs, (small to medium sized businesses, defined as having 250 employees or less) which make up 99.3% of businesses in the UK. Companies like Deloitte make up that other 0.7%. So chances are, students will end up working for a company they’ve never heard of. And that’s not a bad thing.

Especially because the working environment of a large company might not necessarily be for everyone. As reported by graduates, the dark side of graduate schemes are the working hours, a lack of clear leadership, and little opportunity to show their creativity and make a real impact on the business. Working for a smaller company or startup, although it usually comes with a smaller pay check, may give you the scope to work closely with your boss and impress him or her with measurable results. The more relaxed environment (due to the flatter hierarchy) may bring the best out of you and allow you to progress further.

Thus a graduate scheme shouldn’t be the ultimate goal. Getting work experience (of which, no doubt, the 14% who made it on to grad schemes had a great deal under their belts) not only develops your skills. It gives the sufficient insight to teach you that you have to love your job, because it really takes over your life. That’s more important than having a little more cash to splash in the few hours when you’re not working. So students should do their research, talk to people who are at the next stage, and find out if a graduate scheme is really for them.

The third and final myth is the most dangerous, because it concerns the skills that students think they need to develop for their graduate jobs. From the age of 13 or 14, we’re taught that we need to prepare to be the leaders of the future. Schools promote the Combined Cadet Forces, the Duke of Edinburgh award and the Future Business Leaders schemes, saying we need to develop our proactive approach and public speaking skills.

These are great skills to have, but students shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that a degree will send them straight into a managerial position. Yes, they will work alongside those without degrees, but those people have more than made up for that by spending years climbing the corporate ladder. And graduates have to do the same and prove their skills before they come to manage anyone else.

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Studies show that graduates rate leadership as the most important skill to develop at university, but a better use of time would be to focus on self-leadership. This is the art of prioritizing your time, working well in a team, being organised, self-motivated, analytical, creative, and performing well under stress. It’s these skills that impress an employer and allow you to work efficiently, so you can develop and reveal your potential leadership skills.

The obvious lesson from all of this is the importance of work experience. Some students may be spending their summers on adventurous skill-building programmes when employers would prefer them to be getting their heads down in an office. But the more important point is that it must be devastating for graduates to leave the bubble of education and experience a job market that’s so different to their expectations.

Universities are good at getting employers on campus to discuss how their businesses work. But because universities are businesses themselves, and they get students on their courses by promising to give them transferrable skills that make them ‘highly employable’, they’re not so interested in teaching students about the general job market and the reality that their course is no where near enough. That needs to change if students are to approach that momentous day of graduation with realistic expectations and the right mentality.

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About Author

Jacob is a History and Spanish student at University College London, who is passionate about writing, marketing, tutoring and travel.

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