Looking for a job after university? First, get off the sofa

In July, you looked on as your handsome 21-year-old son, dressed in gown and mortar board, proudly clutched his honours degree for his graduation photo. Those memories of forking out thousands of pounds a year so that he could eat well and go to the odd party, began to fade. Until now.

As the summer break comes to a close and students across the country prepare for the start of a new term, you find that your graduate son is still spending his days slumped in front of the television, broken only by texting, Facebook and visits to the pub. This former scion of Generation Y has morphed overnight into a member of Generation Grunt. Will he ever get a job?
This is the scenario facing thousands of families. More than 650,000 students left university this summer and most in these financially testing times have no idea what to do next. Parents revert to nagging; sons and daughters become rebels without a cause, aware that they need to get a job, but not sure how.
Jack Goodwin, from Middlesex, graduated with a 2:1 in politics from Nottingham this summer. He walked into the university careers service and straight back out again; there was a big queue. He lived with five other boys all of whom did the same. There was no pressure to find a job, even though most of the girls he knew had a clearer plan.
“I applied for a job as a political researcher, but got turned down,” he says. “They were paying £18,000, which doesn't buy you much more than a tin of beans after rent, but they wanted people with experience or masters degrees. Then I applied for the Civil Service fast stream. I passed the exam, but at the interviews they accused me of being ‘too detached' and talking in language that was ‘too technocratic', which I didn't think possible, but obviously it is.”
Since then he has spent the summer “hiding”. He can recount several episodes of Traffic Cops and has seen more daytime television than is healthy. He talks to his friends about his aimless days and finds that most are in the same boat. One has been forced out to stack shelves by his parents. For the rest it is 9-to-5 “chilling” before heading to the pub. So how about working behind the bar, to pay for those drinks? “I don't want to do bar work. I went to a comprehensive and I worked my backside off to go to a good university, where I worked really hard to get a good degree,” he says. “Now I'm back at the same stage as those friends who didn't go to uni at all, who are pulling pints and doing deadend jobs. I feel that I've come full circle.”
Jacqueline Goodwin, his mother, defends him. She insists that he has tried to get a job, but having worked full-time since leaving school herself, she and her husband find it tricky to advise him on how to proceed. “I have always had to work,” she says. “It's difficult because when you have a degree, it opens new doors for you, or you'd like to think that it does.”
Although she is taking a soft line with her son at the moment, she is clear that after an upcoming three-week trip to South America, his holiday from work will have to end. He may even have to pay rent and contribute to the household bills.
“They've got to grow up at some point. We've finished paying for university, so a little bit of help back is good,” she says. “The South America trip is the cut-off point. When he comes back there'll be Christmas work if nothing else.”
Gael Lindenfield, a psychotherapist and the author of The Emotional Healing Strategy, says that the Goodwin parents have struck exactly the right note. The transition from university to a job is tough for parents and children: crucially they must balance being positive and understanding with not making life too comfortable for their offspring.
“The main job for the parent is to be there because if they start advising them what to do, that is when the conflict starts. If you have contacts, by all means use those,” she says. “But a lot of parents get too soft. Put limits on how much money you give them, ask them to pay rent or contribute to the care of the house or the pets. Carry on life as normal and don't allow them to abuse your bank account or sap your reserves of emotional energy.”
Paying for career consultations, train fares to interviews or books are good things; being too pushy is not. But while parents should be wary of becoming too soft, Lindenfield advises them to tread sympathetically after a job setback for a few days or even weeks - depending on the scale of the knock. After that the son or daughter needs to be nudged firmly back into the saddle.
Boys are more likely to get stuck at home. Lindenfield believes that men are often better at helping their sons, nephews, or friends' sons than are mothers and sisters. Men have a different way of handling setbacks than women, she says, so they need the male presence to talk it through.
As for bar work, she is a passionate advocate: it's a great antidote to graduate apathy. It just depends on how you approach it. Lindenfield, who found her first job as an aerial photographic assistant through bar work, says it is a great networking opportunity and certainly more likely to get you a job than lounging in front of the TV.
“The same goes for shelf-stacking. You will be spotted if you're good at it. If you're bright and cheerful and are polite to the customers, you'll soon get moved on. So think of it as an opportunity; people who are successful in the long run have often got shelf-stacking stories,” she says.
Your son or daughter may not want to follow Hollywood stars such as Whoopi Goldberg into applying make-up to corpses in a mortuary, or guarding nuclear power plants like Bruce Willis, but even Brad Pitt had to stand outside El Pollo Loco restaurant chain in a giant chicken suit at one time in his life. None of them appears the poorer for these experiences.
The problem with today's graduates, Lindenfield says, is that they do not want to get their hands dirty. Many have been overprotected by their parents and have not been allowed to experience failure. In conversations with employers and recruiters, she frequently hears that the graduates believe they are too good for the job.
“Often they've been spoilt at home - and partly because of the pressure to get top A-level or degree results, they have not been forced out during the holidays to get a job, in case it interferes with their studies,” she says.
Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, has frequently met the 21-year-old who doesn't do mornings, has never opened the jobs pages of any paper and has no idea what to do with the rest of his or her life. As a former careers adviser, he has often been inveigled over family lunches to rescue the prospects of a friend's son or daughter.
“The first thing to get clear is does the individual not know what they have to offer or what the job market has to offer? Is he or she lacking in confidence, or simply bone idle?” he says. “If they're bone idle, you're doing them no favours by letting them loaf, because the longer they're out of work, the more difficult it is to get into work.”
Burger-flipping, shelf-stacking or working behind a till are all valuable in developing a person's “soft” skills, he says, as well as giving the penniless graduate a taste for money and the opportunity to learn the “work habit” while applying to other graduate programmes.
He says: “There is no disadvantage to applying for entry in 2009 or 2010, as long as you have been doing something else with your life and can point to the gains from it. That may even be taking a gap year. The challenge for employers is that if students are not on campus, they're harder to reach.”
Lastly, Gilleard says, graduates of 2008 and 2009 must not be discouraged by talk of an imminent recession. So far there is “no hard evidence” that the graduate recruitment market is about to collapse.
Some companies may cut back on recruitment, or suspend it for a year or two, as they did in the early 1990s; others may recruit even more as they did in the last downturn.
Less than half of all graduates go straight into their chosen career. “The key thing is to remain positive, develop your skills and be more flexible and adapatable than you might have been about where you will work in future,” he says.
Peer fear can often be a key motivator
My career started with a whimper. After three years at Durham University, I had a 2:1 in psychology - but not the faintest idea what to do with it. Like many students, I'd dreaded leaving university since the moment that I arrived. The plan was to have fun and do the bare minimum to get a 2:1. I decided I'd worry about jobs once I graduated.
I didn't realise how quickly my confidence would evaporate on leaving my cosy university life - and how hard job-hunting would be without it. My brother had also graduated in the summer of 2000 (with a 2:1 in classics from Oxford University) and we both came home to live with our parents in Chiswick, West London. After the soaring highs of our graduation ceremonies, we both spent the next three months unemployed. Hardly the stellar start you'd expect from graduates from two of the UK's most prestigious universities.
My parents' ability to support me financially for a few months had pros and cons. No rent to pay left plenty of time to job hunt, but it also meant that my search lacked urgency. When you're used to having routine imposed on you, self-discipline doesn't come naturally. I was convinced that if I waited long enough, my dream job would just strike me.
I signed up with Office Angels, as I had heard that temp jobs sometimes turn into permanent roles. I was posted to a “filing” job; in reality I was de-stapling - removing the staples from other temps' timesheets. I learnt to type and asked Office Angels if I would get a better job now. Apparently not without experience.
That day, I found a newspaper on the Tube and applied for every vacancy in the jobs section for which I was qualified. I got one of them: a small recruitment company based in Central London. I knew that it wouldn't be long-term but it turned out to be a fantastic first job and I stayed for 18 months.
Looking back, I wasn't scared enough to get off my backside and try to get a job. Most students aren't motivated by a love of learning - they're motivated by a fear of failing exams. Graduates don't start job-hunting because they're excited about joining the working world, they do it because they fear that in five years' time they'll be the only one of their friends still living with their parents. Once that kicks in, you'll be surprised by how industrious we can be.


Post a Comment

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More