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The Wild West jobs market where graduates are told: we can’t pay you this month

·6-min read
The Wild West jobs market where graduates are told: we can’t pay you this month

Unemployed graduates are at risk from employers using the pandemic as an excuse to exploit them with low or no pay, experts have warned. They also report that university leavers desperate for a “life-raft” are taking jobs only to be told they will not be paid “because of Covid”.

It comes as competition for graduate jobs is at a record high, with a backlog of former students from last year adding to the pressure on the job hunt for this year’s graduates. Latest figures show the unemployment rate for graduates aged 21 to 30 is 6.3 per cent, compared to just 2.5 per cent for their older peers aged 31 to 40, and it is even lower for graduates aged over 40.

A report by the Institute of Student Employers found there are more than 90 applications for every graduate position, a 17 per cent increase on last year and the highest number since data started being collected in 1999.

Tanya de Grunwald, founder of careers website Graduate Fog, the Good + Fair Employers Club and author of How to Get a Graduate Job in a Pandemic, said the job market is a “wild west” for graduates.

“The backdrop of the pandemic has given unscrupulous employers the perfect excuse to take advantage of young people who are either naïve or vulnerable or desperate for a job. If you are a graduate looking for a job there is a lot to be careful of. We saw something similar in the 2008 crisis. There is a struggle for a life raft.”

She said graduates contact her seeking advice because they are stuck in unpaid internships, while others are in paid employment but their employer has suddenly told them they will not be paid this month.

“One graduate on a paid internship said she was told she will not be paid this month and probably not next month. They told her ‘you know how things are with Covid, the market’. Some employers are using the pandemic to create a narrative around why graduates are getting low or late wages. It adds to this sense that young people should be grateful for anything they get, which undermines their sense of their own value.”

Duro Oye, chief executive of 2020 Change, a social enterprise that supports young black people in the workplace, said the job market is “really bleak” for graduates.

“Even young people who ‘played the game’ and did everything right, went to school, got the grades, worked their butts off are not able to land that first salaried role.”

He said the pandemic has made the situation worse because a lot of networking and recruitment opportunities have stopped or moved online.

“Early on a lot of firms decided to close their doors and pull the rug from under their interns. So it was difficult for young people trying to get experience to be able to land their first job — for young people it’s countless application after application and rejection after rejection and that takes its toll on you. There’s only so much rejection a person can take.”

He said this year is worse because graduates are expected to take part in online interviews and remote working, a new skillset. He added that young people from poorer backgrounds are worse affected by the move to online interviews because they need access to strong internet connections, laptops with cameras and a quiet space, which many do not have.

He said: “If your internet keeps freezing or your mum’s in the background, there are so many barriers and it’s not the same for everyone.”

Ms de Grunwald said: “Graduates are vulnerable to the idea that their work isn’t really worth anything, which is just not true. All businesses need young people and their energy and ideas. I advise graduates to spend more time finding good employers who value them.”

‘I turned to social media to find a job’

Olivia Crowley, 22

Olivia Crowley (Handout)
Olivia Crowley (Handout)

From Romford, got a degree in creative media practice from Bath Spa University but was rejected from 30 jobs in marketing after she graduated in 2020. She set up her own social media company called Living Lavish Social and was approached by a skincare company and offered a job as a digital marketing and social co-ordinator.

She said: “I don’t think careers departments at universities are as equipped as they should be. They didn’t teach us about social media. I got a lot of careers advice from Instagram accounts. There are a few people in their twenties who have created their own careers service and who review CVs.”

‘It is awful being rejected for jobs you don’t want’

Harriet Cochrane, 21

Harriet Cochrane (Handout)
Harriet Cochrane (Handout)

Graduated from King’s College London in the middle of the pandemic and is studying for a masters in broadcast journalism at City University.

She said: “Students have not been able to build up enough work experience to land jobs because of Covid and some, like me, have opted to further our studies and remain at university. Beyond that there is a sense of complete purposelessness and hopelessness.

“One friend said it is awful being rejected for jobs you don’t even want. Some of my friends have applied for 50 jobs and are not even getting rejection letters. They are being ghosted — it is brutal.”

‘I feel demoralised and disconnected’

Deepa Patel, 24

Deepa Patel (Handout)
Deepa Patel (Handout)

From Ilford, studied law at Aston University in Birmingham and graduated in summer 2020. Despite completing several internships, she does not have a full-time job after applying for more than 40 positions.

She had to leave one social media marketing internship because they did not pay her and is currently on a course run by 2020 Change.

She said: “It has been disheartening. Because of Covid I couldn’t see friends and I was stuck indoors. I have applied for around 40 jobs and heard back from just a few. I would rather get an email rejecting me than hear nothing. It makes you feel demoralised and disconnected.”

‘There’s no constructive criticism to help prepare’

Hubert Mudzamiri, 23

Hubert Mudzamiri (Handout)
Hubert Mudzamiri (Handout)

From Chelmsford, studied architecture at Anglia Ruskin University and has applied for 40 jobs but secured only two interviews. He is originally from Zimbabwe and has the added pressure of a visa that relies on him securing a job within two years of graduating.

He said: “Not getting feedback is the hardest part. There is no constructive criticism to prepare for the next interview. My first year of university was normal, but in my second year we were told to go home because of Covid.

“It took a toll, especially on international students. Each day the deadline for finding a job comes closer, but I try to stay hopeful.”

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