Ella Graveney, Newcastle University

Internships: how to tackle graduate unemployment at its grassroots

Three years of hungover lectures, all-nighter library stints, a dissertation, a graduation… and then what?

The time has arrived to hang up those battered trainers and adult, however, for many graduates their vision for the future is not so clear.

Post-five figure tuition pay-out, the world should be a graduate’s oyster. But all regularities have been thrown off-kilter in a world where studenthood was, and still somewhat is, overshadowed by a pandemic.

The routine arrangements of unpaid work placements or a year in industry took a dip in 2020, according to a report published by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE). Whilst placement opportunities have made a speedy recovery from their 29% drop during the first year of the pandemic, the field of work experience has been grovelling to recuperate ever since seeing only an 8% increase in secured opportunities.

Grad scheme? Need experience. Masters? Need experience.

Employer and post-graduate course demands for a hearty CV cast limitations amongst the career prospects for much of the UK’s students. Tripping up graduates at the very first step.

Yet a decline in opportunities is not the only impeding aspect in this internship crisis, to kick-start the spiral of graduate unemployment.

It’s hard to understand why students find it so difficult to find internship opportunities as they offer their brains (and legs to be slaves of the cliché coffee run) free of charge. Bargain!

Gaining experience is a minefield, as the UK witnesses corporate cuts backs, the regularisation of working-from-home culture which deeply impacts the whole process of mentorship and often minimal energy to keep interns busy. Even for those who manage to obtain unpaid internships, it’s not so simple for everybody to just work for free.

Rachel Dawson, third-year linguistics student from Manchester, hopes to become a child speech and language therapist. ‘I need to complete a speech and language therapy Master’s, but to even apply for it, they needed me to have a full gap year of work experience.’

Dawson continues by expressing her concern about how the qualification she requires to fulfil her aspiration might not even be achievable. ‘I’m not sure how I’d be able to fund another two years without being able to commit to a full-time paying job. Especially if I’m having to live away from home to complete it.’

For many, the financial downfalls are often weightier than the enhanced employability offered by working solely for experience. It can even be impossible.

Placement years are ideal for many students. A year out paid to gain experience and networking opportunities. But for much of the 2020-2021 cohorts, these were nothing but a mere myth or tale of an older time.

Rowan Hall Beasley, 23-year-old Cost Manager who graduated from Northumbria University in 2021, lost out on a year-long placement for a nationwide construction company. ‘I felt like I really needed a year of work experience before sitting the final year of my degree.

‘Because of missing out on this opportunity, I worked part-time during my final semester at a nearby practice just so I could gain some experience, at the sacrifice of lecture and seminar time.’

Prospects’ 2021 Early Careers Survey revealed that 45% of university students admitted to feeling unprepared for finding a job after graduating, with work experience requirements believed to be their largest obstacle.

Anna Rennison, Business Engagement Manager at Newcastle University’s Careers Service, suggests how local employers can have a role to play in boosting confidence for those entering the graduate labour market.

‘I think they need to be more open to offering shorter-term internships to students so that they can gain the valuable experience needed to bolster their CV.’

Hall Beasley believes that without juggling final year studies with a part-time nine till five, he would not have received the job offers that he did.

They say it's all about who you know

Felicity Covill, a final year business and marketing student, managed to eventually gain a few weeks of work experience in social media marketing after emailing around 30 different companies. ‘I managed to get the experience through family connections in the end and I feel that a lot of people do it as a favour.

‘It’s a lot harder if you’re just emailing random people because I think often it goes to their junk or gets ignored.’

For much of the UK’s student base, it’s not so easy for them to get their foot in the door where the door is locked, with the key only sourced through connections and financial security.

It'd definitely who you know before you even get there.

Millie Gatenby, 21-year-old geography student from Manchester, believes that gaining the required experience for graduate jobs can sometimes feel like an exclusive club. ‘It’s definitely who you know before you even get there. So, I think it’s definitely very alienating to a lot of the UK. I think also for a lot of normal people, they can’t just go and work for free.’

The emphasis placed on previous experience by employers positions many students at a disadvantage. Not only have opportunities been lessened in the pandemic’s aftermath but certain privileges where networks and the ability to work for free pose as key.

Especially now more than ever, universities could be more proactive in their engagement with students about internships and industry placements. It would be equally as beneficial for local firms and companies to actively recruit directly through student institutions.

A glass door

The decline and exclusivity of work experience opportunities play an overlooked role in the graduate employment crisis, where its influence weighs heavily on a graduate’s confidence and can become a blockade on their path to success. Often invisible to employers.

This is a call for increased empathy towards an era of students that were not only caught up in a pandemic but, like other generations, whose starting lines vary in their race to success.

Where experience is the mulch for a graduate’s career, without change, it is currently hindered in its blossom.